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.
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.
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion