Emotional Awareness and Mental Health

By David G. Weissman

The ability to identify and label our emotions allows us to understand feelings that can often be unpleasant and distressing, and to respond to and regulate our emotions more effectively. Conversely, low emotional awareness is associated with increased risk for multiple mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. Previous research has found that teenagers have more difficulty than children or adults at identifying the specific emotion they are feeling. The teenage years are also a period during which many mental health problems begin. This risk for mental health problems is particularly pronounced in teens who have been exposed to violence. We conducted two studies examining whether low emotional awareness contributed to the severity of mental health problems in teenagers.

In Study 1, 120 children and adolescents aged 7-19 years reported on their emotional awareness and mental health. Low emotional awareness was associated with greater severity of mental health problems across the board, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and behavior problems.

We saw the same association between low emotional awareness and the severity of mental health problems in Study 2, which included 262 children and adolescents aged 8-16 years, half of whom had been exposed to violence. Children and adolescents who had experienced violence tended to have lower emotional awareness, which helped to explain the higher levels of mental health problems in these youths.

These studies provide evidence that low emotional awareness may be an important factor contributing to increases in mental health problems during adolescence and in children and teens who have experienced violence.

David Weissman is a postdoc in the Stress and Development lab at Harvard University

Learn more in original research article:
Low Emotional Awareness as a Transdiagnostic Mechanism Underlying Psychopathology in Adolescence
Weissman DG, Nook EC, Dews AA, Miller AB, Lambert HK, Sasse SF, Somerville LH, McLaughlin KA. Clin Psychol Sci. 2020 Nov 1;8(6):971-988. doi: 10.1177/2167702620923649. Epub 2020 Jul 22. PMID: 33758688; PMCID: PMC7983841.

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