From the Experts: The Words We Use (And Should Use) When Talking About Crisis

photo by  Chelsea Lankford

When we experience crisis, we are often focused on the crisis, not the words we use to describe it. But could our word choice positively impact how we respond to mental health challenges? We wanted to ask the experts so we turned to Crisis Text Line for their insight on young women in crisis. This is what they learned about how young women talk about crisis:

Emotional crisis can happen to anyone, at any time. No one understands that better than Crisis Text Line, the free 24/7 text message service for people in crisis. Since 2013, the service has processed over 63 million messages exchanged with people in the midst of intense moments. Having analyzed these text conversations as data, the organization has amassed a wealth of learnings about the who, what, when, where, why, and how of crisis in the United States.

The words different groups use to describe their most difficult moments can reveal culture norms in action. So we looked to Crisis Text Line and their data to answer the question, “How are young women talking about crisis?”

Here’s what we learned from the top 50 words uniquely used by women aged 18-24. (Demographic information is available only for texters who provide this information in the optional post-conversation survey.)

#2. Anxiety // #20. Depressed // #41. Suicidal

These words came as a surprise: we see texters of all ages and genders struggling with anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide, so how did these words turn up as unique for young women? The answer: this group is quicker to label their experiences.

In a lot of contexts, labels can be harmful and limiting. In the crisis context, the opposite is sometimes true: being able to put words to your emotions can be freeing, and can help someone to see what they’re struggling with as normal. That’s a powerful thing! With all that in mind, our tips (for anyone!) are:

  • Avoid self-diagnosis. Only a medical professional (read: not a Google search!) can tell you whether you have depression, an anxiety disorder, or any other mental health diagnosis.

  • Expand your emotional vocabulary! The more you’re able to describe your feelings, the more quickly you can understand them. We love this “feeling wheel” for finding a specific and impactful word for what you’re feeling.

#4. Sometimes // #10. Little // #16. Maybe // #25. Though // #47. Enough

This group has one thing in common: texters use them to qualify and minimize their own crises. While downplaying one’s own feelings is common, especially for someone already struggling with feelings of inadequacy, it’s telling that we see it more often with young women. Women downplaying their accomplishments is a common theme, and our data shows that many do the same with their crises.

  • Allow yourself to feel strongly. This is something we encourage all of our texters to do: rather than judging your feelings as “not bad enough” or “not that big a deal,” know that what you’re feeling always matters. If an emotion feels massive and overpowering, that’s valid, no matter what’s behind it. Struggling with difficult emotions is bad enough when you’re not also fighting internally with your feelings about those feelings.

  • Ask for what you need. This is advice women hear all the time, and it applies to what we see in crisis conversations, as well. Our volunteers know how to spot someone who’s minimizing their own feelings - the onus shouldn’t fall on the person in crisis. That said, there’s power in being able to express your needs without questioning their importance.

  • Cut out verbal clutter. More isn’t better - it’s just more. Imagine you’re telling a friend how you feel about an interaction that went poorly. Which is more effective: “I actually feel a little betrayed,” or “I feel betrayed?” The second, by cutting out those “qualifiers,” packs a greater punch.

The way we talk about our hardest moments can say a lot about who we are and how we see the world. Be sure the message you’re sending is helping you get the support you need.

The complete top 10 words were:

  1. mom

  2. anxiety

  3. tried

  4. sometimes

  5. love

  6. care

  7. away

  8. sleep

  9. boyfriend

  10. little

For free crisis support in the United States, text HELLO to 741741 anytime.


What shifts could you make in your mental health language? Tell us in the comments.


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