What is Affect Labelling?
When experiencing a negative emotion, we often try to ignore it, pretend it's not there, or distract ourselves. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of energy and does not always work. A surprisingly effective strategy to deal with a negative emotion is to actually stay with the emotion, identify it, and name it in your mind or say it out loud. Psychologists call it Affect Labelling (naming your feelings).
This technique may sound simplistic, but it is actually based on solid neuroscience research. Interestingly, some of the research was done on arachnophobiacs (folks that are terrified of spiders). Those courageous research subjects had to get very close to a tarantula, while one group had to label their scary feelings (“I feel anxious the disgusting tarantula will jump on me”), another group tried to engage in positive self-talk (“Looking at the little spider is not dangerous for me”), and two other groups either said irrelevant distracting things (“There is a TV in my home”) or did not say anything.
Which group had the least fear?
If you guessed that it was the first group – you guessed right! People who labelled their feeling had a reduction of fear. Moreover, when they were retested a week later, their fear was the lowest of all groups. Additionally, then more words they used to represent their negative emotions (such as, I’m nervous, afraid, scared panicky), the more their fear reduced.
These findings were replicated in people with social anxiety (a fear of public speaking).
An fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study of affect labelling confirmed those results. Here it gets a tiny bit technical, so please bear with me, or feel free to skip to the next section.
In the center of our brain, there is an area called the amygdala, which reacts to fear and triggers a fight/flight response. It is activated when we experience negative emotions. When we label (name) those emotions, however, - the brain activity in the amygdala diminishes. Additionally, affect labelling leads to an increase in the activity in another brain region – ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.
This is consistent with unhooking (defusion) - a technique often used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). A simple way to unhook (de-fuse) from a painful emotion is to notice and name it: “Here is my anxiety,” “I am noticing a feeling of sadness,“ “I am noticing that my heart is racing.“ This simple intervention diminishes the power that our feelings, emotions, and thoughts have over us.
What Does That Mean to You?
Those results indicate that by labelling our negative feelings we are calming the emotional center of the brain so that it becomes less reactive. This gives us an opportunity to step back and assess the situation better and respond to it in a more psychologically flexible way. And the most important thing – by giving a name to the emotion, we instantly become less trapped by it.
So the bottom line is – putting feelings into words quickly and effectively diminishes their negative impact.
Try it! Next time you feel a negative emotion:
Stay with it
Clearly name it
Again, you don't have to say it out loud. Naming the emotion in your mind will work just as well!
If you want to make this technique even more effective, you may put it this way: I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am anxious. This puts even more distance between you and the emotional impact of the thought and allows you to take a step back and to not be consumed by the emotion.
Some people have difficulty labelling an emotion. To help you out, here goes a list of some emotions that tend to trap us: anxiety, anger, fear, shame, sadness, frustration, disappointment.
Other (albeit more time consuming) effective strategies that employ a similar rationale are:
Talking with friends about your feelings
Expanding your emotional vocabulary - learning to identify and name more subtle emotions. For example, when you feel angry, you may feel annoyed, irritated, furious, offended, impatient, frustrated, etc.
When we engage in those activities, we learn to become observers of our emotions, as opposed to being immersed in them. We become more effective in dealing with the emotions.
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Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.