By Lesley Alderman, LMSW
One of my favorite household gizmos is my P-Touch label maker. Organizing my papers in file folders and putting labels on the folders helps me to feel organized and calm.
Labeling feelings can have a similar soothing effect.
Let’s say you have a fight with a friend (or partner, or boss). You’re really upset. You might tell yourself, “Oh get over it!” and move on with your day. A better approach would be to take a few moments to put words to what you are feeling—perhaps you feel hurt, betrayed, or misunderstood— and then talk about those feelings or write them down.
When you label your feelings, you help reduce their negative impact by increasing your understanding and acceptance of them.
Here’s how this process works in your brain. When you have an argument (or experience any strong emotion) your amygdala—the part of the brain that processes intense emotions— becomes activated. The amygdala then triggers a cascade of reactions in the body, like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and shallow breathing. These reactions make you feel more upset and stressed. When you attach a label to a strong feeling, the amygdala calms down.
A study conducted UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, showed in humans how this process works. Subjects were hooked up to an fMRI machine, which monitored their brain activity. When the subjects were shown photographs of faces expressing strong emotions, their amygdalas became active. When the subjects were asked to accurately label the emotion in the picture, the amygdala became less active. What’s more, when the subjects labeled the emotion, their right frontal lobe became more engaged. This brain region is involved in vigilance and discrimination. Naming a feeling, then, seems to transform it from raw emotion into an issue that can be considered and analyzed. This region of the brain is also associated with controlling negative feelings.
By labeling your feelings, you are helping your brain put the brakes on your emotional response. And you are giving your brain the chance to make sense of the feelings you have just experienced.
Naming your feelings can also help you accept them. Labeling feelings gives them validity – they become legitimate files in your emotional desk drawer, so to speak. You don’t have to squash them, or disavow them, you can just allow them to be.