February focus: Labelling emotions makes us feel them less

Throughout February we will explore our emotions: what they are, how they serve us, and how we can improve our ability to respond to them in a helpful way.

Today we discuss labelling as a power move.

Naming things is how we make sense of the world

When we are young and learning to talk we quickly discover the triumphant feeling of being able to name something. All at once the name makes it real and something we can talk about.

As adults it’s no different. Being able to give something a name makes it immediately more recognisable and more manageable. It has lost the scariness that comes from being unknown, unquantifiable. Just like in the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, when you know the true name of something, you have power over it.

“Knowledge is Power”

Francis Bacon

Name it to tame it

The same thing goes for our emotions. Noticing them as they surface and giving them a name tends to take the heat out of them. Psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.” By naming our emotions we activate the prefrontal cortex, stimulating the thinking part of our brain. This action also reduces the activity in the amygdala (the feeling brain) and calms our bodily responses,

If we dismiss an emotion, like anger or fear for example, (“Don’t worry about. You’re fine. It’s not that big a deal.”) we can actually make things worse, with secondary emotions such as guilt and shame joining the party.

A psychology study conducted at UCLA used an experiment with a big hairy tarantula spider to support that labeling your emotions at the precise moment you are confronting what you fear make you feel less anxious. The arachnophobic subjects were put in four groups, with the first group instructed to describe their emotions as they encountered the spider, for example, “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.” The second group made statements to neutralise their fear (“That spider can’t hurt me.”) while the third group said something irrelevant and the fourth nothing at all. A week later the experiment was repeated with subjects asked to get as close to the spider as possible and even touch it if they could. The first group who labelled their emotions performed much better.

Many people shy away from negative emotions, thinking that leaning into them or acknowledging them makes them more intense. Studies show this is not the case.

Labelling your emotions is helpful in a number of ways:

– it validates your experience
– it diffuses the charge of big emotions
– it gives you a chance to step back
– it gives you a language to start processing and moving forward
– it helps us spot patterns and start to find solutions
– it helps us talk with others to find support and build relationships

Get some distance

The label you attach to an emotion is the entry way to understanding your experience. The emotion you identify at first might give way to secondary and related emotions as you sit with them and explore what you’re feeling with kindly observation.

By naming your emotions you take responsibility for them while also getting some distance from their sting. So by noticing and naming and creating the space to make a choice about how to respond, your emotions are less likely to spill over so that you act in a way you later regret.

In a difficult work conversation where you are finding it challenging to make your point, you might start to notice the first physical signs of your emotions surfacing: finger tapping or foot shaking, faster breathing and rapid heartrate – all signs of frustration. Taking a breath and noticing to yourself “I am feeling frustrated” (Note: not I am frustrated) can enable you to start the process of soothing yourself and slowing down. Unacknowledged, the big emotions that are sitting under the surface of frustration, like shame, guilt and anger will surface. This could result in you becoming tearful or thinking harmful negative thoughts or even saying something in anger that you don’t mean.

Practice

Practice labelling your emotions whenever you can. Give yourself a break if you find yourself overwhelmed with neurochemicals at times – it takes patience, effort and practice to change. The aim is to get better at catching yourself.

Labelling an emotion helps you create distance from it and builds a bridge towards being able to choose a reponse rather than a triggered reaction.

Daily practice – expression

Dance and sing your heart out to your favourite playlist.

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