As discussed in my previous post Why is Naming our Emotions a Challenge?, it is clear that many of us may have not been given the modelling, education or validation around emotions that would have been ideal. So is there much point in trying to connect with them now? It can be tempting to ignore negative emotions. Some people might think that giving time and energy to our feelings gives them room to grow, and that by ignoring them, they will be diminished and hopefully just disappear; however research shows us that is not the case. In studies where participants are exposed to emotionally charged stimuli, when these participants are encouraged to label their feelings they experience less intense emotions than participants that don’t label their feelings (Torre and Lieberman, 2018).
Studies on this subject have shown that labelling emotions:
- encouraged greater progress through exposure therapy for patients with a clinical fear of spiders (e.g., moving physically closer to the spider) compared to distraction or exposure alone (Kircanski et al., 2012)
- decreased observed levels of anxiety by the parents of adolescent girls who used electronic diaries to log their emotional states (Morelen et al., 2013);
- increased test performance for students who wrote about their test-related anxieties before taking a math test (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011)
An important caveat to note is that sometimes naming our feelings can cause those feelings to be more intense in that moment. This might be because we are providing ourselves with the space to experience our emotions fully, and not trying to move away from them. I have certainly witnessed this in therapy – clients who are given encouragement and space to feel and name their emotions may be surprised that they are experiencing their feelings at a depth they did not realize was present. Studies show that there can be a pay off to these experiences – when participants have an initial experience of emotions intensifying due to naming the feeling and are then exposed to the same stimuli at a later date, they experience less emotional intensity than those participants who did not name their feelings:
- Participants who viewed an aversive film and spoke about their emotions demonstrated increased physiological responses (lower skin temperature and higher skin conductance) in an initial session, but showed reduced physiological responses and increased self-reported positive affect 48 hours later when viewing the film a second time (Mendolia & Kleck, 1993 as cited in Torre and Lieberman, 2018)
- Participants who were shown images of spiders demonstrated decreased skin conductance 8 days later when shown these same stimuli but only when images were initially presented with negative word labels (Tabibnia, Lieberman, & Craske, 2008).
- Participants with clinically diagnosed arachnophobia who engaged in affect labeling during an initial session with a live, caged tarantula present demonstrated greater decreases in skin conductance response during a second session 1 week later compared to patients who engaged in distraction, reappraisal, or mere exposure alone (Kircanski, Lieberman, & Craske, 2012).
You might be wondering, how does this work? On the face of it it might make very little sense that labelling emotions actually helps to lessen the intensity of them. One study seems to point to the idea that by labelling the emotion we are activating another part of the brain, which changes our experience of the emotion. The study showed participants a picture of an angry face – when the participants labelled the emotion there was decreased activity in the amygdala which is known for its role in emotion, particularly processing fear. They also found there was increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions (Lieberman et al., 2007).
So now that we know why labeling emotions can be helpful, next we will focus more on how to put the ideal into practice.
In two weeks: Part 3 – Emotions as Information and How to Label Our Emotions
Kircanski K, Lieberman MD, and Craske MG. (2012) Feelings into words: contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychol Sci. 23(10), pp. 1086-91
Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH and Way BM. Putting Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science. 2007;18(5):421-428
Morelen, D., Jacob, M. L., Suveg, C., Jones, A., & Thomassin, K. (2013). Family emotion expressivity, emotion regulation, and the link to psychopathology: Examination across race. British Journal of Psychology, 104(2), 149–166
Ramirez, G., and Beilock, S. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom, Science 331(6014), pp. 211-213
Tabibnia, G., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2008). The lasting effect of words on feelings: Words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion, 8(3), 307–317
Torre, J. and Lieberman, M. (2018) Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. International Society for Research on Emotion, 10(2), pp. 116-124