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Why Labeling Emotions Matters

An at-home experiment on emotion labeling.

Let's begin today's post with a quick emotion experiment:

How are you feeling right now?(take a few seconds to answer it)

Which emotions have you felt today/in the past few days?(take a few seconds to answer it)

Most of you probably answered the first question by thinking of "fine," "great," "okay," or "not great." When answering the second question, you likely came up with a relatively small number of emotions, something in the order of two to five.

I know this because there is growing evidence suggesting that it is difficult to properly identify and label the myriad of emotions we experience on a regular basis (see Gratz & Roemer, 2004). To draw an analogy, we are constantly taking black and white photographs of the very colorful scenes of our lives.

Importantly, some people experience greater difficulties labeling their emotions than others. No matter how complex their emotions might be, they still come up with only a few labels to describe them. This impoverished emotional labeling is, in turn, associated with deficits regulating those emotions (see Vine & Aldao, 2014). In other words, the less aware we are of our emotions, the less likely we are to figure out how to best regulate them.

To turn to an example, if my coworker messed something up and I'm only aware of the anger his mistake makes me feel, I might think that I'm justified in lashing out at him. But if I happen to be aware that my emotional response also includes anxiety about having to fix this issue, I might be more motivated to downregulate my anger so that I can recruit his help.

In this second scenario, our relationship remains strong, and we effectively work together to solve problems. Thus, making an effort to understand our emotions in nonjudgmental ways can be quite valuable in terms of helping us regulate them better, and consequently, navigate our environments more smoothly.

In a recent study from Dr. Michelle Craske's lab at UCLA, the researchers recruited participants who had a spider phobia and asked them to participate in a behavioral approach task (BAT). In this BAT, participants were told that they would have to take eight steps to get progressively closer to the feared spider. They could stop at any time. In fact, the number of steps completed is one of the main dependent variables of the BAT (the other ones being physiological arousal and subjective ratings of anxiety).

The BAT is a laboratory version of the CBT process of exposure, and as such, it allows researchers to utilize experimental manipulations to identify the effectiveness of various aspects of exposure. In this particular case, these investigators assigned each participant to one of four experimental conditions that differed in their instructions for what to do with the anxiety: 1) label the anxiety felt about the spider, 2) think differently of the spider so that it feels less threatening (reappraisal), 3) distract from the anxiety elicited by the spider, 4) no specific instruction (control condition). Participants then came back for a second BAT session so that the investigators could test the long-term effects of their emotion manipulation.

Interestingly, the investigators found that participants who had been assigned to labeling their emotions had lower physiological reactivity to the spiders, as indexed by fewer skin conductance responses. In addition, the authors found that within the affect labeling condition, participants who verbalized a larger number of fear and anxiety words had even fewer skin conductance responses! These findings suggest that having greater emotional clarity about one's fear can help reduce the physiological manifestation of this emotion.

I think these findings are super exciting, and I'm looking forward to reading about extensions of this work. In the meantime, however, I would like to encourage you to take a few moments each day and practice the exercise from the beginning of this post. How many words can you use to describe your emotional experiences? How nuanced are your descriptions? Do you find that your ability to do so varies as a function of the situation?

Here's a list of emotions: amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, concern, contentment, disappointment, disgust, elation, embarrassment, excitement, fear, guilt, happiness, irritation, joy, pride, revolted, shame, surprise, unhappiness. It's non-exhaustive, but it's certainly a good place to start. See Plutchick's Wheel for a visualization of how these emotions are interconnected.

© All Rights Reserved, Amelia Aldao

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