Would You Believe: What Happens When You Label Emotions

Some of us may have problems dealing with our feelings because, as children, we were told “You’re just tired. Go and lie down.” But perhaps we were really upset about something – but unable to express why, or what about. 

This means, as adults, we might be prone to irrational bursts of emotion, and embarrassed, or ashamed, because we lack the tools to self-regulate our feelings. And what we don’t know, we can’t pass on to help the next generation.  

But did you know it’s scientifically proven that “naming” feelings really work? 

Emotions: from inside your brain 

Let’s imagine you’re stressed at work – and nothing seems to get you out of a funk. Then you spot your boss. They’re angry – really pissed. It might have nothing to do with you (remember not everything is). But you’re terrible at these situations. Your internal chemistry goes into cRaZY-time.  

What’s happening inside your brain at this precise moment?

Well, once your eyes sent the “ANGRY BOSS ALERT!” signal to your brain, your amygdala region (part of the limbic system which controls behavior/emotions) goes into overdrive. 

The amygdala’s role is to get involved in processing fear and anxiety. It spots “angry face” and alerts your hypothalamus which triggers a “fight-or-flight” response. Suddenly your heart rate and respiration increase, preparing to take action and protect yourself from danger.  

Quick fix.

Duck down in your cubicle, grab a pen and a piece of paper. Quickly write down how you feel, if you’re angry, write “I am feeling angry”.

In doing this, your right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (right behind your eyes, involved in processing visually induced emotional responses) will light up, and instantly diminish the amygdala activity. You’ll feel instantly calmer and more “in reality” than before. You’ve just given a name to your feeling, which helps you process it and then let it go.  

Go one step further – grab a friend and take a walk around the block. Fresh air is good for releasing negativity, and so is sharing what’s going on. Don’t put a brave face on it. Say: “Can I just share for a moment?” Be clear about what you need: Try this – “I want someone to listen, not tell me it’s going to be okay, or that I need a lie-down.” You’re asking for a “witness”, not a pacifying cheerleader, (and definitely not a bi-directional gossip session). 

Start with: “When I saw my boss looking angry, I felt…..”

Then keep talking until you’ve got it all out. Take deep breaths, sending much-needed oxygen to the brain, and, through talking, release the anxiety from your body. 

The research.

UCLA psychologists discovered this tool in a research study funded by the National Institutes of Health. The trial involved thirty people (18 women, 12 men), ages ranging from 18 – 36, who reviewed visuals of individuals illustrating different emotional states. The researchers found that when the participants wrote down the feeling by the face, they saw a reduction of their amygdala response. 

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” found the researchers. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

As the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex develops most during preteen/teenage years, it’s vitally important that parents and caregivers teach young people how to name their feelings during this time. It will help them learn how to self-regulate as adults.

Don’t tell kids they’re just tired – teach them to name their emotions instead. The same goes for you – it’s good to talk. Try expressing how you feel in a myriad of ways – whatever works for you – singing/playing a soothing Bach sonata? Perhaps drawing/painting? Anything but stuffing it down and pretending it won’t affect you – it will.