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Naming your emotions: Why saying “I feel bad” can actually make you feel better
May 3, 2021
Scientists call it “affect labelling” but more simply it means “putting feelings into words.” Understanding how this works might just change the way you respond to your emotions.
When we’re experiencing negative emotions—whether it’s anxiety or anger, stress or sadness, frustration or fear—it can be really tempting to ignore what we’re feeling or push it down. Unpleasant emotions, well, they’re just that: unpleasant. And they’re just plain uncomfortable. We might think that acknowledging our emotions, saying them out loud or writing them down, might make them more intense or last longer. Maybe we’re afraid to get real about how we feel precisely because we believe that verbalizing our feelings will make them more real and give them more power over us, but that’s not true!
The pandemic has been incredibly hard in so many ways. If you’ve lost loved ones, the pain may be unbearable. If you’ve lost your job or your business, you may be feeling hopeless. If you were already vulnerable before the pandemic, chances are you’re suffering more now. Recent research from CMHA and UBC showed that people who already had mental health issues going into the pandemic were some of the worst off. This was also true for Indigenous peoples, as well as people who are young, are LGBTQ2S+ or have a disability. The flood of negative emotions might be overwhelming at times, and it can easily feel that our only option is to push down what we’re really feeling and put on a brave face.
In fact, studies have shown that putting words to feelings is far more helpful than we might have thought. Putting feelings into words can reduce the force of negative emotions. So what feels like hurt can actually help.
It might not seem like saying something as simple as, “I feel bad,” (or anxious or sad or angry) should do much to help you feel better. But neuroscience tells us it will. A neuroimaging study from Lieberman and a team of researchers found that the act of turning your negative emotions into language disrupts and reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of your brain that drives your responses to stress and fear. When you see a yellow light, you hit the brakes. When you put feelings into words, it’s like you are hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.
Another group of scientists found that labelling emotions increases activity in the prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain—regions that are responsible for processing words and encoding their meaning. In other words, having a specific label for what we’re feeling seems to change the activity in our brains. It helps us feel calmer and helps us understand what we’re going through.
A more recent real-world study examined the effects of affect labelling on 74,478 people who use Twitter. They found that tweets about negative emotions were followed by an immediate and rapid reduction in negative feelings.
It is remarkable, really, that just by saying the words ‘I feel bad,’ emotions immediately return to their baseline.
The takeaway from all this science is clear. Naming our feelings can help reduce the intensity of our negative emotions. Looking away, numbing ourselves and suffering in silence only makes things worse.
Want to see the science in action? Check out our “7 ways to calm your inner world” and put the science to work for you. Name it, don’t numb it. You’ll be surprised how much it helps.
If your emotions are overwhelming, persistent and/or are interfering with your daily functioning, it’s important to seek mental health support.
Torre, J. B.,Lieberman, M. D., Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, Vol. 10 No. 2 116–124 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., et al. Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
Brooks, J. A., 1, Shablack, H., et al. The role of language in the experience and perception of emotion: a neuroimaging meta-analysis. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 169–183 (2017). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27539864/
Fan, R., Varol, O., Varamesh, A. et al. The minute-scale dynamics of online emotions reveal the effects of affect labeling. Nat Hum Behav 3, 92–100 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0490-5