Decoding the Language of Depression & Anxiety in Social Media

by Thaddeus Camlin Psy.D.

image symbolizing predictors of depressionA recent study analyzed thousands of social media posts and found reliable predictors of depression in the language people use.  The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science, reveals three ways to predict depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.  Extrapolating from the results offers some intriguing considerations that relate to how we think, the way in which our thinking influences our mood and behavior, and how our language might influence addictive cycles.

Post Content as a Predictor of Depression and Anxiety

The first two predictors of depression and anxiety in social media that researchers found were in the content of posts.  First, the use of negative emotional words (e.g. miserable, sad, lonely) at unusually high rates predicted depression.  Second, and even more strongly correlated with depression than negative emotional words, was the use of first person singular pronouns.  People who posted significantly more about “I”, “me”, and “myself” were much more likely to be depressed than those who posted about “they,” “them,” “she,” “he,” etc.  It is fair to wonder if the same correlations would be found in daily conversations and internal dialogue.

While simply posting more about how “we” or “they” are building something “exciting” rather than about how “I” am “lonely” probably won’t get rid of depression, anxiety, and the common coping method of substance use, a general effort to think, talk, and post in terms of positive, collective efforts might result in some degree of mood boost and anxiety relief.  The tricky part, however, is that sad posts are more likely to elicit a response of social support than happy ones, so the system reinforces the recipe for feeling sad and anxious, which fuels subsequent urges or cravings.

Post Style as a Predictor of Depression and Anxiety

The third (and perhaps most interesting) predictor of depression and anxiety related to the style of posts.  Even more so than content, certain post styles were the most predictive of depression and anxiety.  People who posted in abnormally high amounts of ‘absolutes’ (e.g. always, nothing, never) were the most likely to be depressed and anxious.  Compared to neutral online forums, the prevalence of absolute wording was 50% higher in anxiety and depression forums and 80% higher in suicidal ideation forums.  The correlation between absolute thinking and depressive and anxious symptoms is exactly why SMART Recovery emphasizes the importance of managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  What doesn’t bend breaks, and so it goes that increasing cognitive flexibility increases happiness.

Change is Under Our Control

The content and style of our social communication is under our control.  We author our posts in facespace, we direct our attention, we can change the patterns of our thinking and communication.   If our depression was a just a chemical imbalance in the brain then we’d have to wait for a physician to find the right balance of meds.  Self-empowering treatment emphasizes what is within our control and this study reminds us that we have a great deal of control over our thinking and language.  We don’t have to wait for anything or anyone to notice and challenge the negative emotional words, first person singular pronouns, and absolute thinking that constructs our persona and shapes our experience of the world.  After all, it is from the fallow of despair that much beauty is born.

“The only genuine ideas are the ideas of the shipwrecked.  All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.”

~Soren Kierkegaard