Concept Creep: Our Concepts About Anxiety and Depression Are Changing – Neuroscience News

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Summary: A study investigating “Conceptual Anxiety” suggests that, with increased mental health awareness following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the concepts of “anxiety” and “depression” are widespread.

The study revealed that, contrary to expectations of less sensitive use, these terms have taken on a more serious meaning over the past five decades. This change is driven by increasing the association of these words with each other and words related to diseases, such as “disorders” and “symptoms”.

While raising awareness is important, the study warns of the potential risks of overdoing daily mood swings.

Main facts:

  1. A study of more than 800,000 psychology articles and the American English Daily Journal has shown that “anxiety” and “depression” are now associated with more intense feelings than in the past decade.
  2. The words “anxiety” and “depression” appear together and alongside the words related to the disease, indicating their increased awareness as a clinical phenomenon.
  3. As the understanding and awareness of mental health issues expands, there is a risk of excessive daily emotional states, leading to possible over-diagnosis and over-treatment.

source: University of Melbourne

After COVID, mental health is at the center of the public consciousness.

The traditional and social media is full of stories about new treatments, an alarming increase in the proportion of mental health problems and shortages in the mental health system. Personal accounts of living with mental health issues have been shared like never before.

This increased interest is likely to have a very positive effect.

Public awareness should help increase mental health awareness, reduce stigma and encourage people to seek appropriate help. Raising the profile of mental health should also galvanize efforts to improve the health system.

Despite these hopes, some commentators worry that greater attention to mental health may have some drawbacks. Critics argue that the common human experience is heightened by psychiatric classifications, such as the DSM-5, resulting in overdiagnosis and overuse.

Some writers also suggest that raising awareness about ill mental health may backfire and inadvertently cause more mental health problems. Others claim that people’s ideas about mental health are changing in ways that may have damaging consequences.

Our research group explores this kind of change as an example of “idea manipulation”, a historical tendency for ideas to be associated with the danger of expanding their meaning.

For example, we have shown that as “trauma” has gained popularity in recent years, it has broadened its meaning to include less severe experiences. When it refers only to life-threatening events, but in everyday language it refers to almost any difficulty.

Does the same process of conceptualization occur for “anxiety” and “depression”, the two most common forms of distress related to mental health?

Influential American sociological writer Professor Allan Horwitz and philosopher Professor Jerome Wakefield, propose that this has already happened in mainstream psychiatry, arguing that the DSM often diagnoses modified anxiety and everyday sadness as mental disorders.

Papers are published in journals PLOS ONE.

Creep concept

To test whether “anxiety” and “depression” are spread or diluted in this way, our new study uses natural language processing methods that we have previously used to study trauma.

We looked at how the meaning of two words has changed over the past half century in two large data sets (“corpora”), expecting to find that they are less meaningful.

One organization has more than 800,000 psychology articles published from 1970 to 2018. The other has more than half a billion words from a variety of everyday American English sources, such as television programs, novels, newspapers and spoken language, over the same period.

Both corpora allow us to examine how the meanings of “anxiety” and “depression” have changed in academic discourse and in society.

We set all the appearances of “anxiety” and “depression” in each body and extract all the words that appear shortly before and after each one. These collective words represent the semantic company that the concept stores.

Historical changes in these collocates can help clarify how the meanings of “anxiety” and “depression” have evolved.

We evaluated the emotional intensity of collocates using established criteria for Their emotional meaning. While we thought violence would decrease over the years we found the exact opposite.

In both corpora, words surrounding “anxiety” and “depression” consistently become more serious, telling us that these words are seen as more distressing than in the past decade.

Changing Meanings of ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Depression’

Eager to understand why the meaning of “anxiety” and “depression” increased more than depression, as our concept predicts, we explored how their combined terms have changed over the decades.

Two trends help explain our findings.

First, “anxiety” and “depression” appear close together. For example, “depression” was not in the top ten common “anxiety” in the 1970s or 1980s, but in the 2000s and 2010s, it became the most common.

Second, over the past five decades, both concepts have appeared frequently in the vicinity of disease-related words – such as “disorder” and “symptom.” It tells us that “depression” and “anxiety” are increasingly understood as clinical phenomena.

Together, these two trends help explain why “anxiety” and “depression” have more serious meanings in both academic psychology and everyday language use.

“Anxiety” and “depression” are seen as a pair of diseases.

Treat more diseases than usual

Our findings, based on word usage patterns observed in large data sets over half a century, indicate that anxiety and depression are increasingly being viewed through a clinical lens.

Although anxiety and depression can be temporary and beneficial everyday moods, they can become disorders.

They are pathologized rather than normal.

Does this mean that “anxiety” and “depression” do not pass the concept? Not necessarily.

People may now use these words to refer to less severe phenomena than they used to and increase clinical understanding of them when they do.

So the concept of anxiety and depression may be broad, intense and pathologized simultaneously.

The consequences of that possibility may be related.

People should seek help when they experience clinically significant anxiety or depression. But if they view ordinary anxiety or depression as a medical condition, it may mean that they seek unnecessary treatment and inappropriate self-diagnosis.

About depression and anxiety research news

Author: Nick Haslam
source: University of Melbourne
contact: Nick Haslam – University of Melbourne
Image: Image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original research: Open access.
“Are the concepts of ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ normalized or pathologized? A corpus study of historical semantic change” by Yu Xiao et al. PLOS ONE


The concept of ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ has been normalized or pathologized? A corpus study of historical semantic change

Research on conceptual depth suggests that the meaning of some psychological concepts has broadened in recent decades.

Certain mental health-related concepts such as ‘trauma’, for example, take on a wider meaning and refer to a wider range of events and experiences.

‘Anxiety’ and ‘depression’ may undergo similar semantic inflation, due to increased public interest and awareness. Critics have argued that everyday emotional experience is increasingly pathologized, so that ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ have expanded to include the sub-clinical experience of sadness and anxiety.

The possibility that these concepts have been expanded to include less serious phenomena (vertical concepts) was tested by examining changes in the mental intensity of words in the vicinity (combination) using two large historical texts, one academic and one general.

Academic institutions have > 133 million words from psychology abstracts published 1970-2018, and the general corpus (> 500 million words) contains a variety of text sources from the United States for the same period.

We hypothesized that the combination of ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ would decrease in mean emotional severity over the course of the study. Contrary to predictions, the average severity of collocates for both words increased in both corpora, probably due to the clinical growth of both concepts.

The findings of the study therefore do not support the historical decrease in the severity of ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ but provide evidence for the increase of their pathologization.

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