Anxious About Something? Try This 30 Second Technique

‘Affective labeling’ works.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

If you’re uneasy about something, one of the best things you can do is simply name it.

Seriously: It’s called “affective labeling,” and it works.

Brain imaging research indicates that when people name what it is they’re feeling, the emotion becomes less overwhelming.

This was first shown in a 2007 study lead by Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at UCLA. His team showed images of distressed, angry, or otherwise emotionally charged faces to participants. They found that when participants were asked to describe the emotions they saw, the activity in their amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear and panic, settled down, while the prefrontal cortex — associated with decision-making and reasoning — grew more active.

“The brain’s perception of the images shifted from objects of fear to subjects of scrutiny,” observed Corinne Purtill, who discussed the study in a recent post at Quartz.

Some forms of anxiety can be useful — psychologists say it’s a way that the brain prompts you to prepare for things that might come ahead. It makes evolutionary sense: the tribe that didn’t worry about saving enough food for winter wasn’t going to give you an ancestor. And people who have super low anxiety — daredevils, stuntmen, and the like — tend not to live too long.

But anxiety becomes dysfunctional when it begins to limit your life — preventing you from going on a job interview, trying a new sport or hobby, or asking out your crush.

So the next time you feel anxious about something, take half a minute, grab a pen and pad, and just ask yourself what you’re feeling, and write it down. If you can name it, it help tilt your brain from panic toward interest, and your decision-making can go from there.