Another day, another upset: Your manager gives you an unfair review. Your love interest ghosts you. Your teenager tells you to f&^% off. You’re distracted. Your mind whirls, your heart pounds, your palms sweat.
How do you get back to baseline? You could distract yourself and move on to another task. But a better option would be to try this simple trick: Accept and identify what you’re feeling, and then say it out loud or write it down.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, researchers have found that focusing on your feelings and succinctly labeling them helps to lessen their intensity.
A recent study of Twitter users shows the benefits of this trick. Researchers searched a large database of Twitter accounts for statements that expressed unambiguous negative or positive emotions, such as “I feel great,” or “I am feeling bad.” Once a venting tweet was identified, the researchers analyzed the tweets that individual sent six hours before to six hours after the statement, in one-minute intervals. The data showed a clear pattern: About an hour before the statement, the tweeter’s emotions started to escalate. Once the statement was made and the emotion explicitly stated, subsequent tweets showed that the emotion rapidly dissolved.
“The results were a bit baffling,” said Johan Bollen, a professor of informatics at Indiana University and one of the authors of the study. “People don’t always know exactly how they are feeling. But once they are able to identify their emotion and express it, they start to feel better.” The study also found that negative emotions dissipate more quickly than positive ones.
Here’s how this process of naming emotions works in the brain. When you experience a strong emotion, your amygdala — the part of the brain that processes intense emotions, including fear and danger — becomes activated. The amygdala then triggers a cascade of reactions in the body, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and obsessive thinking. When you attach a label to that strong emotion, the amygdala calms down.
A study conducted at UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science showed how this process works in humans. Subjects were hooked up to an fMRI machine, which monitored their brain activity. When they were shown photographs of faces expressing strong emotions, their amygdala became active. When the subjects were asked to accurately label the emotion in the picture, their amygdala became less active. What’s more, when the subjects labeled the pictures, another area of their brain lit up — the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This brain region is involved with self-restraint, impulse control, and emotion naming.
How does putting a label on a feeling quiet the amygdala? Matthew Lieberman, PhD, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at UCLA, has a theory. The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex have a feedback loop, he explains. The amygdala serves as an alarm to the brain. When a problem occurs and the amygdala gets activated, it sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex to use its reasoning powers to deal with the problem. When you label an emotion, the prefrontal cortex sends a signal to the amygdala: “Hey, we got this. You can hit snooze.” The amygdala receives the message and chills out.
Once your amygdala relaxes and you are back to baseline, your mind can engage in rational thinking and begin to make sense of the upsetting incident.
“It’s a handy strategy,” says Lieberman. “If you’re really stressed out, you can put your feelings into words and dampen your level of emotional distress.”
You can also use this strategy to cope with a fear-inducing situation, like walking across a bridge when you are afraid of heights. In one study published in 2012, researchers examined how labeling emotions might help people with a spider phobia. In the study, 88 people with a fear of spiders were first instructed to approach a live Chilean rose-haired tarantula in an open container outside, and then touch it with the tip of their index finger. (Not all subjects made it that close to the furry critter.) The subjects were then randomly assigned to one of four groups. Each group sat in front of a new tarantula that was in a container indoors. Group one was asked to label the feelings they were experiencing by speaking a sentence out loud to describe the spider and their emotional response to the spider (including negative words). Group two was asked to describe the spider in neutral terms. Group three was instructed to speak about a piece of furniture in their home. Group four was not given any particular instruction.
One week later, the subjects revisited the tarantula in the outdoor container. The subjects in group one, who labeled their feelings, were able to get closer to the spider and had less of a fear response (measured by the level of sweat on their palms) than subjects in the other groups.
Labeling emotions is also useful in everyday situations. When your best friend is sulking, you might say, “Hey, you look upset. What word describes how you are feeling?” Or when your kids are distressed but not saying why, you might help them figure out what they are feeling and then express that feeling out loud. For instance, if your son had to sit on the bench for most of his basketball game, you could ask, “What was that like?” If he shrugs (and/or rolls his eyes), you could help him out by suggesting some of the feelings he might have experienced (anger, humiliation, sadness). Sometimes kids don’t know exactly how they feel, so you might have to suggest some emotions to them. They can practice saying them out loud softly to themselves or writing them down.
Here’s how you can put this strategy to work for yourself.
Step 1: Accept the feeling instead of pushing it away.
Often, we’d rather ignore a strong emotion in the hopes that it will just go away. But that’s not the best practice over the long term. So, after your love interest ghosts you, don’t pretend you’re not upset. After your partner says she’s not coming home from the office until midnight, don’t pour yourself a bourbon. Accept your anger and label it.
In addition to accepting the feeling, resist the urge to add on yet another emotion. It’s common for humans to react to a strong emotion with a judgment about having the emotion, which only makes matters worse. For example: You’re anxious about a presentation you have to give at work, and then you get mad at yourself for feeling anxious. That’s called a secondary emotion, and it only serves to deepen your distress
Accepting your emotions not only helps you feel better in the short term; it also helps bolster your mental health over the long term. Studies consistently find that those who accept their feelings have better mental health than those who actively avoid them or try to cover them up with addictions, obsessions, or denial. One longitudinal study published in 2014 found that people who avoided their emotions were more likely, over time, to develop disorders such as depression and anxiety than those who accepted and addressed their feelings.
Step 2: Label your feelings judiciously.
The way in which you categorize your feelings can have an impact on how those feelings are processed. “Use abstract labels, rather than imagistic ones,” advises Lieberman. After an argument, you might want to say something like “I am angry at my spouse” or “I feel really hurt,” instead of “I feel so lonely and bereft at home alone with the kids while my partner chose to stay late at work.” Overly descriptive language can make matters worse by “activating the visual cortex, which would then send new activations to the amygdala,” says Lieberman.
Step 3: Talk about the feelings or write them down.
Once you have labeled your feelings and your mind is calm, talk to a friend, colleague, or therapist to help you process what the upsetting episode meant. Talking about the situation can help you come to a more nuanced understanding of what happened and why. You might come to accept, for instance, that most teens are rude and impatient, and that it is best to not personalize their negative comments.
Writing about the incident may also help you develop a more rational understanding of it. “The mere act of writing demands a certain degree of structure, as well as the basic labeling or acknowledging of emotions,” writes James Pennebaker in his paper “Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health.” A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology looked at studies on written emotional expression and found that writing about upsetting experiences is associated with improved psychological well-being.
Writing or talking about what’s bugging you makes you feel better both in the moment and into the future.