How are you feeling right now, in this very moment?
Perhaps you, like many others, thought about this and responded with “great” or “fine” or “not too bad.” Growing evidence tells us that people find it difficult to properly label the range of emotions we experience day to day.
But why is this important?
When we’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions — whether it’s anxiety, anger, sadness or frustration — it can be tempting to ignore what we’re feeling. We may try to push it down. We might think that acknowledging our emotions, by saying them out loud or writing them down, could make them grow in intensity, or make them last longer. We might be afraid that verbalising our feelings will give them more power over us, but that’s not true.
Putting feelings into words can actually reduce the force of unpleasant emotions. Dr Dan Siegal, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, coined this concept as name it to tame it. By naming what we are feeling, we reduce the intensity of the emotion, and feel less overwhelmed.
Saying something as simple as “I feel bad,” (or anxious or sad or angry) out loud or in your head, can help you to feel better. This has been proven in some groundbreaking neuroscience studies. One neuroimaging study found that the act of turning unpleasant emotions into language disrupts and reduces activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of your brain that responds to stress and fear.
Another research found that labelling emotions increases activity in the brain’s prefrontal lobe – a part of the brain important for planning, logic, reason, and rational thinking. Labelling the emotion helped in feeling calmer and accessing the part of the brain that helps us to make thought out choices, rather than simply reacting to emotions.
Looking away, numbing ourselves and suffering in silence only makes things worse. Name it, don’t numb it. Just by saying the words ‘I feel bad,’ emotions return closer to their baseline. Naming our feelings can help reduce the intensity of our negative emotions. This is helpful to us all and can be encouraged from childhood - there are several kids books that help our little ones naming their feelings.
Mindfulness is a technique that involves paying attention to present moment experience – emotions, thoughts and body sensations, such as breathing - without passing judgment or reacting to it. Mindfulness of emotions can help with soothing distress. Next time you are feeling distressed, try using this script from the Australian Centre of Clinical Interventions (CCI - Self Help Resources for Mental Health Problems):
Recognise & Allow Emotion:
Aha! I’m feeling…[angry/sad/scared]. It is OK, I can allow myself to have this feeling…I can make space for it…I don’t have to be afraid of it or try to get rid of it.
I can just watch this feeling and see what it does, I don’t have to get caught up in it.
Let’s see, where do I notice the emotion in my body?
This is just an emotion, just a feeling to be felt, nothing more and nothing less.
I am not my emotions, I am the watcher of my emotions.
The feeling is just like a…[ocean wave…I don’t need to fight the wave frantically…I can just go with the wave, letting it bob me up and down, or riding it into shore]
I will turn my attention back to the task I am doing now …noticing what I can feel…hear... see… smell… taste…
I will turn my attention towards my breath…the breath being my anchor to the present moment…noticing each in breath and each out breath
Deal with Emotional Comebacks:
I feel the emotion returning…that’s OK, that’s what emotions do, they like to rear their head again. I will just go back to watching it again…it is just another [ocean wave]…
Accepting Distress (health.wa.gov.au)
Learning to Label My Emotions (habitsforwellbeing.com)
Why Labelling Emotions Matters | Psychology Today New Zealand
Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain -- ScienceDaily
Why saying “I feel bad” can actually make you feel better (cka.ca)