Does labeling your feelings help regulate them?

Kristen Lindquist

One of the mainstays of psychotherapy is the idea that talking about your emotions—or even writing about them—can help you to regulate them. Mindfulness-based approaches from Buddhism offer similar outcomes—the idea is that if you are “mindful,” or aware, of your feelings, then they won’t seem as strong. Until recently, it was not well understood how, or even why, labeling your feelings worked to reduce them. In some ways, it seems too simple to be true. Yet growing evidence from neuroscience suggests that labeling your feelings is in fact a good idea; telling your kids (or your spouse) to “use their words” when they’re upset just might work.emotions_-_3

In a recent paper from my lab, my collaborators and I explored the neural mechanisms at play when people are prompted to label their emotions versus when they are not prompted to label their emotions. This paper was particularly powerful because it used meta-analysis to summarize the findings across 386 neuroimaging studies of emotion (for more on the neuroimaging of emotion, see our recent post). This means that we were able to say which brain regions were consistently more active across 386 studies when individuals were prompted to label their emotions versus were not prompted to label their emotions. In many cases, participants had no clue that labeling would have an effect on their emotions. In fact, most studies were not explicitly designed to even test this hypothesis, they just conveniently asked participants to label their feelings as part of their study design (to check that participants were in fact experiencing the desired emotions, to ensure that participants were paying attention, etc.). Thus, our paper offers a unique lens for examining whether drawing people’s attention to emotion labels alters their brain activity while they are experiencing emotions.

Our findings confirmed the idea that labeling helps regulate your emotions. We found that when labels were present—at any point—in an experiment (prior to experiencing emotions or during experiences of emotions), this was associated with more consistent increases in prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain during emotional feelings. Critically, these brain regions are responsible for retrieving concepts and elaborating on their meaning. Take a second and think about the concept of “anger”–what does it mean? What does it feel like? What happens when you’re angry? You’re activating these regions now. This means that merely seeing a word such as “anger,” “fear,” or “disgust” prior to viewing a negative image may cause your brain to start retrieving knowledge about specific emotions and to start categorizing what you’re feeling, putting your feelings of negativity into more specific words. Consistent with the idea that labeling your feelings reduces them, these regions are also known to be consistently involved in deliberate emotion regulation when people try to rethink, or “re-appraise” the meaning of their initial emotional responses to a situation (e.g., “maybe I don’t feel sad the new job didn’t work out, I feel relieved…”)

In contrast, when emotion words were not present in experiments and participants were just experiencing emotions unfettered, we found greater activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is well-known to show increased activation during emotions and may be particularly involved in intense or impactful experiences. We also know that the amygdala has increased activation to ambiguous stimuli and situations. Together, these findings suggest that when you’re not prompted to access emotion words prior to viewing a negative image, your feelings may be more intense and harder for you to understand. Consistent with this interpretation, other classic findings on emotion labeling demonstrate an interplay between prefrontal regions involved in representing words and the amygdala–greater increases in word-related regions result in greater decreases in the amygdala during emotional experiences.

Taken together, our findings begin to shine light on the neural basis of why putting feelings into words may work. Teaching people to become more mindful of their feelings, or to become better at labeling their feelings in nuanced ways (a facet of “emotionally intelligence”) may be a fruitful route for getting emotions under control. In fact, kids who “use their words” following emotional intelligence training do better at school and have more positive relationships with other kids and teachers. The next time you’re feeling bad, try labeling it. You might just feel better.


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We Are Not Born Alone

Tom Hollenstein

Relationships are good for us. For years, correlational study after correlational study has reported better health and mental health, longer life, less stress and negative emotions, and more happiness and positive emotions for those with good relationships compared to those with poor and/or few relationships.

As an example, consider an upcoming deadline at work that you worry you will not be able to meet, potentially resulting in dire consequences for your company and/or your job. Anxiety. Stress. The better you are able to manage that anxiety, the more likely you are to be able to focus and complete the task. If you are alone, both at home and at work, then the regulation of this stress is all on you. If you have good relationships both at work and at home, there are people to support you, encourage you, and help you feel less anxious.

How does this work?

The prevailing explanation is that relationships add benefits to individuals. Our default, or baseline, is as a solitary individual. This solitary baseline can then be enhanced by close relationships. Have one good relationship? That’s great. Have two? That’s even better. Have great relationships at home, work, and in the community? That’s the best. Let’s call this the Law of Added Positives: psychologically and biologically, good relationships provide extra positives to minimize individuals’ negatives.

However, according to Social Baseline Theory, based on evolution, neuroscience, and emotion advanced by James Coan and colleagues, the Law of Added Positives is not the way things work. In fact, they seem to work in reverse.

For millions of years, humans have been born into environments that included other people. Life begins with strong physical attachments to a mother that become5621007786_aa441a3deb_o strong emotional attachments to her and a group of (often related) others. Those that bonded and worked together for common solutions thrived; those that fought and worked against each other did not. An isolated individual was and remains an anomaly, someone unlikely to have the resources – resources that are as much psychological (e.g., emotional) and biological (e.g., neurological) as material. (e.g., food) – to survive and reproduce.

That is, our baseline or default circumstance is social.

Human biological systems evolved for – and now expect – a social environment where existential risk is distributed (i.e., safety in numbers) and survival efforts are shared. Fight the bear by yourself and you will expend a lot of energy and are less likely to survive; be one of a group fighting off the attacking bear, each individual using less energy with a greater likelihood that you survive. Less energy and greater chance of survival – that is what evolution is all about.

So how does this translate to modern day humans and the relationships-health connection? First consider some preliminary evidence provided by Proffitt and colleagues.

  1. Perception of effort is biased by energy cost/benefit. People perceive hills as steeper and distances as farther away when they are wearing a heavy backpack compared to when they are not. This is taken as evidence that neurobiological systems automatically adjust the perception of difficulty based on the energy required.
  2. Social proximity reduces perception of energy costs. If your friend is standing next to you with a heavy backpack, you will perceive the hill as less steep and the distance as not as far. Just being near someone else lightens the load.
  3. The closer the relationship, the greater the effect. It is not merely the presence of any other human being that indicates load sharing. Your best friend has a bigger effect on your perception of incline and distance than a new acquaintance.

So, if you’re facing that deadline at work alone, it may make the task seem more difficult and less possible.

Coan and colleagues developed Social Baseline Theory based on this and other evidence but tested it more directly, by looking at threat processing in the brain. They conducted a hand-holding fMRI study with three conditions: no hand holding, holding the hand of a stranger, and holding the hand of their partner. Participants received a mild ankle shock on 20% of trials in which they saw a threat cue on a screen. Threat-related brain activity was greatest in the alone condition, less in the stranger condition, and the least in the partner condition. Like the backpack studies, those with the least amount of threat-related brain activity had the highest quality relationships with their hand-holder. Other studies have shown this effect as well.

Instead of relationships adding some extra positives, as the Law of Added Positives would assume, those with the most load sharing were the most efficient at processing threat, requiring the least energy. As social connection and therefore load sharing, diminished, more energy for neural activation was required to deal with the threat. Maybe the law is one of Added Negatives.

Perhaps the greatest implication of Social Baseline Theory is the way that we conduct psychological, especially emotional, research. In an effort to minimize extraneous variables, much of what we have come to understand about human thoughts and feelings and behavior has come from experimental isolation – a single human alone in a room in front of a computer. The assumption has been that the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis and when we include other people it is to enhance or diminish whatever capacities were witnessed in isolation. Perhaps what we have revealed is human functioning at its least efficient, most taxing, and least natural.

Photo credit: Shared via a Creative Commons license.

Understanding the Early-Life Origins of Extreme Anxiety—Role of the Amgydala

Alex Shackman

The internalizing disorders—anxiety and depression—are a major human blight. According to the World Health Organization and National Institute of Mental Health, depression is responsible for more years lost to illness and disability than any other medical condition, including such familiar scourges as diabetes and chronic respiratory disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common family of psychiatric disorder in the United States and rank sixth as a worldwide cause of disability. These disorders, which commonly co-occur, also impose a substantial and largely hidden burden on the global economy: hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity each year. Unfortunately, existing therapeutic approaches are inconsistently effective or, in the case of many pharmaceutical approaches, are associated with significant side effects. Not surprisingly, the internalizing disorders have become an important priority for clinicians, economists, research funding agencies, and policy makers.

The internalizing disorders generally have their roots in the first three decades of life and there is clear evidence that children with a fearful, shy, or anxious temperament are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, major depression, or both as they grow older. As a postdoctoral fellow in Ned Kalin’s lab at the University of Wisconsin and, more recently, as the director of my own lab at the University of Maryland, I’ve used a range of tools and techniques to understand the brain systems that contribute to extreme anxiety early in life. Building on a tradition that dates back to pioneering studies at Wisconsin by Harry Harlow, Karl Pribram, and others, much of the work that I conducted as a postdoc used nonhuman primates to model and understand key features of childhood anxiety. Young rhesus monkeys are useful for deciphering the brain circuits that underlie childhood anxiety. Owing to the relatively recent evolutionary divergence of humans and Old World monkeys (~25 million years ago), the brains of monkeys and humans are biologically similar. Similar brains endow monkeys and children with a common repertoire of social and emotional behaviors, which makes it possible to measure anxiety in monkeys using procedures similar to those used with kids. Another virtue of working with monkeys is the opportunity to collect high-resolution measures of brain activity (using positron emission tomography or PET) while the animals freely respond—hiding in the corner, barking, and so on—to naturalistic threats, such as an unfamiliar human ‘intruder’s’ profile. This would be difficult or impossible to do in children and, somewhat surprisingly, has rarely been attempted in adults (most human imaging studies use fMRI, which requires that the subject remain dead still throughout the scan).

Large-scale brain imaging studies, each including hundreds of young monkeys—in humans terms, roughly equivalent to children and teens—show that anxious individuals respond to signs of potential threat with heightened activity in a number of brain regions. For present purposes, I’ll focus on the contribution of the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region buried beneath the temporal lobe of the brain (the red regions in the accompanying animation).

Collectively, these studies teach us that amygdala activity systematically differs across individuals. Some individuals show chronically elevated activity; others consistently show much lower levels. Notably, elevated activity is associated with exaggerated reactions to potential danger: Monkeys with higher levels of metabolic activity in the amygdala tend to show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and to freeze longer (in an attempt to evade detection) in encounters with the human intruder. Like many other qualities that distinguish one individual from another, work by our group demonstrates that amygdala activity is:

1. Consistent over time and context: We can think of amygdala activity as a trait, like personality or IQ.

2. Heritable: Amygdala activity partially reflects the influence of genes. Parents marked by higher levels of amygdala activity are more likely to have offspring with this trait.

Of course, like any brain imaging study, it’s important to remember that these results do not let us to claim that the amygdala causes anxiety. From this perspective, it is reassuring that mechanistic work in monkeys and rodents demonstrates that it does: selective lesions and other biological manipulations of the amygdala sharply reduce (but do not entirely abolish) anxiety (see for example this very recent rodent study). This is consistent with observations of a handful of human patients with near-complete amygdala damage. For example, one relatively well-known patient (identified as ’SM,’ to protect her identity), has normal intellect, but reports a profound lack of fear and anxiety in response to scary movies, haunted houses, tarantulas, and snakes.

According to Justin Feinstein, Ralph Adolphs, and other researchers who have studied SM over the past two decades,

She has been held up at knife point and at gun point, she was once physically accosted by a woman twice her size, she was nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion she has been explicitly threatened with death…What stands out most is that, in many of these situations, SM’s life was in danger, yet her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency. Police reports…corroborate SM’s recollection of these events and paint a picture of an individual who lives in a poverty-stricken area replete with crime, drugs, and danger…Moreover, it is evident that SM has great difficulty detecting looming threats in her environment and learning to avoid dangerous situations.

This and other evidence—spanning a range of species, populations, and measurement tools—indicates that anxious individuals’ exaggerated distress in the face of potential danger reflects hyper-reactivity in a brain circuit that includes the amygdala. Systematic differences in amygdala activity and connectivity first emerge early in life and can foretell the future development of anxious and depressive symptoms in humans. These and other observations suggest that enduring differences in amygdala function contribute to key features of childhood temperament, like shyness, and confer increased risk for the development of internalizing disorders, particularly among individuals exposed to stress or trauma. More importantly, this work lays a solid, brain-based foundation for developing better strategies for treating or even preventing these debilitating illnesses.

To learn more about the emotional disorders, please visit the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) website, which features a number of useful videos, fact sheets, and other resources for patients, clinicians, and researchers.

Photo credit: The amygdala animation was generated by Life Science Databases, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, and is freely used under a Creative Commons license.


Can Disgust Be Anger for Kids?

Sherri Widen

Imagine you and a 2-year-old child are watching TV.  In the show, a man discovers that his soup contains sheep’s eyeballs.  You think to yourself, “Wow, that guy is really disgusted!”  The child says, “Wow, that guy is really mad!”  You are confident that, in fact, the guy is disgusted.  Does that mean that the child is wro2462987456_c9d17a5539_zng?  Most people assume that children and adults understand emotions in very similar ways.  But as this example shows, that may not be the case.

Although children begin using emotion words in conversation before the age of 2 and have a wide emotion vocabulary before the age of 5 years, studies of children’s use of emotion words find that they initially have two broad emotion categories: one for positive emotions and one for negative ones.  For example, 2-year-olds have been asked to say how people with different facial expressions feel.  The 2-year-olds used angry for facial expressions of anger, disgust, and sadness but not for facial expressions of happiness, surprise, or fear.  So, for young children, angry is a much broader category than it is for adults.  Older preschoolers are less likely to use angry for sadness facial expressions but it is not until children are at least 9 years old that they stop using angry for the disgust facial expression.

How do children go from two broad emotion categories (positive vs. negative) to more specific, adult-like categories?  In answering this question, it is helpful to think of emotions as “scripts” which include causes, consequences, and so on: for disgust, a person smells something foul (cause), wrinkles his or her nose (facial expression), covers his or her nose (behavior), and tries to get away from the source (consequence).  Which of these parts of the script might help children first understand that their broad negative emotion category is composed of distinct emotions?  From among all the causes, consequences, behaviors, etc., children need to notice that some things tend to co-occur.  For disgust, causes may provide that initial clue (eating or smelling something awful).  By 3 years, children know both the causes and words for disgust but it is not until they are much older that they connect the facial expression to the other parts of the disgust script.  In contrast, for sadness, by 4 years of age, children have connected the causes, consequences, facial expressions, and labels of the script.

As children move from preschool-aged to middle childhood, they learn about a wider variety of emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame.  Just as younger children initially understand emotions like sadness, anger, and disgust in terms of positive vs. negative emotions, older children initially understand embarrassment, pride, and shame as a part of emotion categories that they already have.  Children (4-10 years) were asked to say how people felt when shown facial expression or told brief stories describing situations that cause these emotions.  Younger children labeled anger, contempt, disgust, and shame as angry and they labeled embarrassment as sad.  Gradually, children distinguished among the emotions and the oldest children used the expected label for all emotions (except contempt, which they labeled as angry).

So, when the 2-year-old in the sheep’s-eyeball-soup example we began with said that the man was angry, she was not wrong.  Within her understanding of emotions, the man was experiencing a negative emotion and her word for negative emotions is angry.  This response represents her current level of emotion understanding but it is also an opportunity for you to teach her something new – what disgust is.  A variety of school-based interventions work to explicitly teach children about emotions and to increase their emotion vocabulary and social skills.  Children are ready to learn about emotions and children who participate in these interventions develop stronger social and emotional skills and have improved grades than children who do not.

 Photo credit: Photo sourced from flickr via Creative Commons License