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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Would an emotion by another name look the same?

Kristen Lindquist

In the blink of an eye, people see emotions unfold on others’ faces, and this allows them to successfully navigate the social world. For instance, when we see a scowl begin to unfold on a colleague’s face, we instantly understand the depth of his rage. A brief turn up of a friend’s lips transforms her face into the picture of happiness. Detecting a stranger’s widened eyes and a gaping mouth alerts us that something in the environment is not quite right. Indeed, most of us can see these emotions in the others around us with the greatest of ease, as if we are reading words on a page. The clear utility and ease of perceiving facial expressions of emotions has led many prominent researchers to conclude that information on the face is itself sufficient to automatically trigger a perception of “anger,” “happiness,” or “fear.” Yet growing research calls into question the idea that emotion perception proceeds in this simplistic and automatic manner.

My colleagues Lisa Feldman Barrett, Maria Gendron and I have been wondering for some time if emotion perception is perhaps not quite as simple as it seems. We’ve hypothesized that people actually learn to read emotions in other people over time, and that this process in part requires knowledge about different emotion concepts. The idea is, without knowing the word “anger,” you could never see a scowling person as angry. In a paper recently published in the journal Emotion, my co-authors and I tested this hypothesis in a rare group of patients who have a neurodegenerative disease called semantic dementia. Semantic dementia is caused when cells in areas of the brain that are critical to language die. As brain cells die, patients progressively become unable to understand the meaning of words and unable use words to categorize the world around them. We wondered if patients with this disorder would still be able to perceive specific emotions on faces, or whether their failure to use and understand the meaning of words would prevent them from understanding the specific meaning of emotional facial expressions.

To test this hypothesis, we gave three patients with semantic dementia a number of pictures of facial expressions and asked them to sort those facial expressions into as m490830281_a6da6da3fc_oany piles as they thought necessary. Notably, the task itself didn’t require words—patients weren’t required to match faces to words or to state words out loud or write down words to label the faces. Instead, patients could just freely sort the images into piles based on similarities in their appearances. Pictures included posed facial expressions of individuals who were scowling (angry), frowning (sad), wrinkling their noses up (disgusted), individuals with wide eyes (fearful), smiling (happy), and individuals who had relaxed, neutral facial muscles. We know that when healthy young adults perform a task like this, they produce roughly six piles for the six facial expressions in the set. Yet because semantic dementia typically impacts individuals who are 50+ years old, we first asked how a group of healthy older individuals performed on the facial expression picture sort task. Much like the younger adults, older adults created six or more piles to represent the six categories of facial expressions in the set of pictures. By contrast, when the patients with semantic dementia performed the sort task, they didn’t see the faces as instances of specific emotions. Instead, they sorted faces into piles of positive, negative and neutral expressions. As a testament to this fact, one patient attempted to label his piles (early on in the disorder, patients can still use some words, but increasingly lose the ability to do so over the course of their disease). This patient referred to his piles as people who felt “happy,” “rough” and “nothing.” These were the very few emotion words that the patient could still use, and he correspondingly sorted faces into piles that reflected these words. These findings suggest that without access to emotion words such as “anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” etc., individuals can only perceive the most basic of meaning in an emotional face—that is, whether the person is expressing something good, bad, or neutral.

These findings are consistent with some of our older research showing that temporarily impairing healthy young individuals’ access to the meaning of an emotion word impairs their ability to perceive emotion on faces. More broadly, our recent findings have implications for how scientists understand the nature of emotion perception. Rather than seeing emotion perception as a simplistic and automatic process that all individuals have the capacity to do, our findings underscore the importance of language in emotion perception. Our findings suggest that people with impaired language abilities, such as autistic individuals, might not only have problems with verbal communication, but also non-verbal communication. These findings suggest that counter-intuitively, an emotion by any other name might not look the same.

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Using language to ‘unlock past emotions’

Ajay Satpute

Imagine having to give a wedding speech tomorrow. How would you feel? Maybe excited, but if you’re more like me, you probably feel a sense of dread. I remember my speech at my sister’s wedding. Having no clue what to say, I thought listlessly about what the key ingredients were supposed to be. Something funny but not humiliating, something touching but not cheesy, and some warm wishes but nothing cliché. And ideally, something memorable. It ought to be fun I suppose, but it felt more like anticipating an electrical shock.


Recent research in social psychology suggests that part of making a speech count could be as simple as picking the right verbs. The study, which was conducted by Professor William Hart at the University of Alabama, found that a subtle shift in language from using the past tense (e.g. “I walked down the aisle”) to using the imperfect past tense (e.g. “I was walking down the aisle”) induced greater pleasant feelings for recounting positive emotional experiences, or unpleasant feelings for recounting negative emotional experiences. These effects occurred both for people’s personal emotional memories (Experiments 1 and 3b), such as that time when my older sister stood up for me on the playground, and also for emotional memories created in the laboratory (Experiments 2 and 3a). Critically, the strength of his results was substantial (e.g., Cohen’s D = .69, Experiment 1), suggesting that using imperfect past tenses for ‘unlocking past emotions’ may have real value in everyday life. Professor Hart also found that when people used the imperfect past tense, they tended to have more detailed memories and that this could explain why they had stronger feelings.

Certainly, Hart’s findings raise several questions for psychologists about how language relates to recounting emotional experiences. One can readily surmise about the implications of these findings in therapy setting. Is it better for the therapeutic process to recount traumatic events using imperfect tenses that enhance memory and amplify feelings, or past tenses that reduce them? Perhaps when recounting the day events with your partner, merely starting with “I was eating lunch…” rather than “I ate lunch” might lead to story with a little more humor or a little more empathy, and could promote a closer relationship. In any case, the next time you find yourself telling stories while giving a wedding speech or say, serving on the witness stand, playing poker, or teaching a life lesson, select your words—or verbs—carefully, depending of course on whether you want to inspire laughter and tears, or prevent them.


Do talk to strangers

Kristen Lindquist

If you’re  a New Englander, a city-dweller, an introvert, or just put a lot of stock in your mother’s admonitions to avoid talking to strangers, then you’re going to think what I’m about to say is crazy. You should talk to strangers more, and there’s scientific evidence to support it. Now I know what you’re thinking. Small talk is tedious! If you talk to that person on the street, you’ll be stuck there forever. Plus, he’s most likely crazy, going to mug you, or both. Be that as it may, scientific research suggests that it will make you happier to make a connection with other members of humankind.

commute (1)In a newly published paper, Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago asked participants in a Chicago-area train station to do one of three things on their commute: one group was asked to strike up a conversation with the person next to them, one group was asked to do their normal commute routine (which let’s be honest, probably involves ruminating about the coming toils of the day, or what you’re going to make for dinner that night) and one group was asked to sit in solitude. At the end of the train ride, the authors measured how happy the commuters felt. They found that small talk is apparently not so tiresome after all. Participants who chatted with a train-mate reported feeling more positive compared to participants who sat in solitude and participants who did their normal commute thing. Now perhaps what’s most interesting about these findings is precisely what I suggested at the beginning of this post—the idea of chatting with someone sounds, well, at best a little tedious and at worst just downright terrible. As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I can assure you that this is my expectation when the person next to me in the supermarket checkout line starts expounding on the recent weather or extolling the virtues of my choice in yogurt. Epley and Schroeder’s participants also predicted that they’d feel pretty unimpressed at sharing trivial tidbits with another human being on the train. Funnily enough, they also predicted that solitude would be rather blissful. Not so.

These findings are interesting not just because they offer a new tactic for improving your commute, but because they strike at the heart of what social scientists and emotion researchers have known for some time. People need other people. Indeed, social connection is probably one of the most important keys to health and well-being. A famous study by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman found that having intimate relations (with another person) and being with friends makes people happier than almost all other things, including relaxing, eating, exercising, napping, even taking care of their kids (you’ll note that spending time with kids doesn’t quite count as the type of “spending time with people” we’re referring to here—this effect is probably moderated by the dirty diapers, constant feedings, rides to soccer practice and fights amongst siblings that makes interactions with these small people less than blissful). John Cacioppo, also from the University of Chicago, has found that perceived loneliness is related to depression, poor health and even mortality. And what’s lonelier than being surrounded by a sea of people and not making connection with a single one? So find a good joke, start caring about the vagaries of the weather, and reach out and chat with someone.