We’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat,” which is true to some extent. But how many of us have heard that “we are what we say?” 

According to a recent analysis led by a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the vocabulary you use reflects your physical health, emotional health, and overall well-being. This analysis was published in Nature Communications. 

According to the lead author, Vera Vine, Ph. D. in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, “Our language seems to indicate our expertise with states of emotion we are more comfortable with. It looks like there’s a congruency between how many different ways we can name a feeling and how often and likely we are to experience that feeling.” 

The words you use reflect how comfortable you are with that emotion. If you use a more positive vocabulary when talking about your emotions, chances are you have had a lot of fun experiences. However, if you use more negative words when describing your emotions, you’re probably more neurotic. 

Vine and her team analyzed public blogs written by over 35 000 people and stream of consciousness essays written by over 1567 college students. The participating students also reported their moods during the experiment. 

The analysis found that people who used more negative words were more depressed, more neurotic, and made more references to feeling sick and feeling alone. In contrast, people who used more positive words reported feeling less depressed, less neurotic, physically better, and had other activities and achievements in their lives. 

These results indicate that a person’s emotional experiences correlate with the vocabulary they use, but whether this is helpful or harmful isn’t clear yet. 

“There’s a lot of excitement right now about expanding people’s emotional vocabularies and teaching them how to precisely articulate negative feelings,” said Vine. “While we often hear the phrase, ‘name it to tame it’ when referring to negative emotions, I hope this paper can inspire clinical researchers who are developing emotion-labeling interventions for clinical practice, to study the potential pitfalls of encouraging over-labeling of negative emotions, and the potential utility of teaching positive words,” Dr. Vine states.

“It is likely that people who have had more upsetting life experiences have developed richer negative emotion vocabularies to describe the worlds around them,” stated co-author James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. 

“In everyday life, these same people can more readily label nuanced feelings as negative which may ultimately affect their moods.” While identifying your negative emotions can have its benefits and is often encouraged by others when you’re dealing with a difficult situation, overdoing it might have the opposite intended effect and make you more comfortable in that state of mind. 

Emotional vocabulary can indicate how another person is feeling. Even if a friend or a family member isn’t explicitly talking about it, the words they use to describe their emotions might be indicative of a larger problem. 

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