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Tame Big Emotions by Labeling Them

Emotions are valuable tools. Our feelings motivate us and propel us into action, communicate with and influence others, and give us information about ourselves. We can think of how people manage emotions on a spectrum. On one extreme, some people are overly controlled, tending to ignore and muffle emotional experiences. These individuals may behave in very rigid and restricted ways. On the other end of the spectrum, people ride an emotional rollercoaster and tend to give into impulsive behaviors to manage their emotional distress. Although some people “live” at either end of this spectrum, many of us travel somewhere in the middle. Nonetheless, most people can relate to a time when they experienced such intense emotions that they were challenged to act in ways that were aligned with their values and goals.

A simple strategy to help with emotion regulation is, “name it to tame it,” a phrase coined by psychologist, Dr. Dan Siegel, to describe using language to outwardly express the sensations we experience inside. Research supports that emotional differentiation, the ability to recognize and label specific emotions, is associated with less use of maladaptive behaviors to cope with negative emotions. In fact, affective labeling may be associated with better mental health functioning in both adults and youth. This may be because when we label our emotions we may decrease activity in our amygdala, one of our brain's emotional centers believed to be responsible for the fight or flight response. When we use language to mediate our experiences this allows our prefrontal cortex to become more involved in responding. This is a good thing, as our prefrontal cortex is our decision making part of the brain, and engaged activities related to such tasks as impulse inhibition, attention, and cognitive flexibility.

A study conducted by researchers at UCLA illustrates the power of emotional labeling in relation to anxiety. In the study, participants with a spider phobia (arachnophobia) participated in a task where they had to approach their feared stimulus (a spider). Participants were divided into four experimental conditions:

  1. Label the anxiety felt about the spider

  2. Reappraise the spider so it is not as threatening

  3. Distract themselves from the anxiety

  4. Control group with no specific instructions

Interestingly, the investigators found that participants who had been assigned to labeling their emotions had lower physiological reactions to spiders, which was quantified by fewer skin conductance responses, an indicator of arousal. In addition, in the labeling group, participants who verbalized a larger number of words describing anxiety had even fewer skin conductance responses.

How do we put this research into practice?

For teens and adults experiencing distressing emotions I recommend they practice the following:

  1. First, put a hand wherever you notice an emotion. What sensations do you feel? Maybe it’s tightness in your chest, heat building in your face, or tension in your shoulders.

  2. Become curious. What word or words would you use to describe your emotions? A feelings wheel or list of emotions can be helpful in specifying your emotions.

  3. Then say to yourself, “My body is telling me I am feeling ____________ .” Use as many terms as you can to describe your emotions.

If you find that your child is dysregulated, perhaps crying or yelling, try the following:

  1. Acknowledge feelings. “I see you are upset. You are crying and your fists are clenched. Your sister does not want you to play with her car, and you are feeling really mad because you like that car so much.”

  2. Model positive coping. “I hear it is so hard to not have a toy we want. You are feeling really mad. I’m going to take some slow deep breaths now. Do you want to join me?”

Our feelings are powerful informational tools. This practice of bringing awareness to our feelings gives us time to separate ourselves from our emotions, allowing us to pause and perhaps mindfully choose how to approach a situation or care for ourselves in healthy ways during times of stress.

If you suspect that you or your child frequently has difficulty managing emotions, counseling can help. Contact Dr. Amanda today to learn more about counseling services.

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