The next time painful or stressful feelings threaten to overwhelm you, here is what you do: get something to write with. Get something to write on. Write down a word that describes the emotion you’re experiencing. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive. Just a word or two will do.
Affect labeling—the act of naming one’s emotional state—helps to blunt the immediate impact of negative feelings and kickstart the process of climbing back down from stress. The clarifying effect of putting feelings into words was observed at least as far back as the 17th century, when the philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote in his Ethics: “An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.” It’s also the basis of modern psychoanalysis.
Why it works has taken a lot longer to figure out. There are clues in a small 2007 study of 30 subjects at the University of California, Los Angeles. Led by psychology professor Matthew Lieberman, the researchers conducted a series of brain-imaging experiments in which participants were shown frightening faces and asked to choose a word that described the emotion on display. Labeling the fear-inducing object appeared to reduce activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain in which the fight or flight reflex originates, and increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with vigilance and symbolic processing. The brain’s perception of the images shifted from objects of fear to subjects of scrutiny.
Experientially, the fact that there is a name for what you’re going through means that other people have experienced it as well, which makes an overwhelming emotion feel less isolating. Affect labeling is a compressed version of the three-step process of self-compassion identified by the psychologist Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin:
- Admit that a situation is painful or uncomfortable
- Recognize that pain and discomfort are universal elements of the human experience
- Do something healthy to alleviate the discomfort like get outside, stretch, or call a friend
As the executive coach Katia Verresen has said, “There are no new stressful thoughts.” Recognizing that can be a first step toward quieting such thoughts down.