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Why It Helps to Put Your Feelings Into Words

Affect labeling as a form of implicit emotion regulation.

Key points

  • Putting feelings into words, or affect labeling, has been shown to have regulating effects on our emotions.
  • Affect labeling can influence the experience of emotion, various autonomic processes such as heart rate, as well as brain activity.
  • The mechanisms behind the regulatory effects of affect labeling include distraction, self-reflection, reduction of uncertainty.

“Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?” —Leo Tolstoy

Languages reveal their true colors—from their glory to their limits—whenever we rely on them to articulate emotions. Streams of words don't always capture the depths of our despair or the heights of our joy. Other times, a few lone words beaded together in the right way can help us decipher the cryptic contents of our hearts. Faithfully translating our inner states into neat parcels of information legible by the outer world is a precarious affair. Things are bound to get lost or added along the way. Yet, despite its imperfections, putting our emotions into words, or affect-labeling, is a worthwhile endeavor. Amongst its many merits, it can be a form of implicit emotion regulation.

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A recent review published in the journal Emotion Review by University of California psychologists Jared Torre and Matthew Lieberman explores the mechanisms of affect labeling and its influence on our emotional experiences.

Affect labeling can influence the experience of emotion.

Putting feelings into words can have attenuating effects on the actual experience of emotions. These effects can be similar to the regulatory effects of reappraisal, which involves finding other ways of thinking about situations to feel differently about them. For example, when participants in one study were asked to label their emotional states as they looked at negative emotionally evocative images (e.g., snake, hospital scene), they reported feeling less distress than if they merely observed the images passively. Similarly, participants experienced reduced negative valence and arousal when looking at aversive images, if they labeled the emotions depicted in the images.

Affect labeling can influence autonomic signals.

Studies have shown that affect labeling can produce immediate as well as delayed autonomic effects. For example, when participants had the opportunity to verbalize their negative emotions after viewing aversive images (compared with merely stating neutral facts about the images), they had lower arousal and decreased skin conductance responses. In another study, asking participants to appraise their negative emotions after an anger-inducing task changed their cardiovascular reactivity by lowering their heart rate and cardiac output.

Moreover, research from exposure therapy has illustrated possible delayed autonomic effects of affect labeling. In one study, for example, a group of patients with arachnophobia was asked to label their negative emotions as they spent time with a caged tarantula, while other groups of arachnophobia patients engaged in emotion regulation strategies such as distraction, reappraisal, or mere exposure alone. Results showed that the affect labeling condition was most effective in reducing the patients’ psycho-physiological arousal as measured by their skin conductance response. In fact, the more the participants were able to put their fear and anxiety into words, the greater decreases they had in their skin conductance response one week later and the closer they managed to move towards the tarantula.

Similarly, when people with public speaking anxiety combined exposure with affect labeling (the more anxiety-related labels during exposure, the better!), they experienced a greater reduction in skin conductance response 1 week later in anticipation of giving a speech, compared with exposure only.

Affect labeling can influence neural activity.

Various fMRI studies have demonstrated that the neural patterns of affect labeling are similar to those of reappraisal. Specifically, putting feelings into words has been shown to decrease amygdala activity and increase ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vIPFC) activity compared to non-affect labeling conditions such as gender labeling or passively viewing stimuli. [The amygdala plays a key role in emotion processing; the vlPFC is part of the brain’s cognitive control network.]

Affect labeling can influence behavior.

Engaging in affect labeling can have consequences on the behavior of individuals. For example, arachnophobic patients were able to move physically closer to spiders when they vocalized their emotions, compared with when they used reappraisal, distraction, or exposure alone. In another study, students who wrote about their worries and anxiety about taking a high-stakes math exam immediately before their test performed better on the test.

According to Torre and Lieberman (2018), there are four possible mechanisms that can explain the regulatory effects of affect labeling:

1. Distraction

One plausible mechanism for the regulatory effects of affect labeling is distraction or interference. Converting our feelings into words creates a gap where we are not fully engaged in the processing of the stimulus that evoked the emotions in the first place. This momentary distraction, in turn, is said to dampen the emotional reaction to the stimulus. However, according to the authors, distraction alone cannot be fully responsible for the attenuating effects of affect labeling. For example, other conditions that involve diverting attention away from the evocative stimulus (e.g., gender labeling) have not been shown to produce similar regulatory effects on emotions.

2. Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is another possible component of the affect labeling mechanism. Indeed, a certain self-awareness and understanding of our emotions are necessary for us to be able to put what we feel into words. Studies have shown that reflecting on our emotions, even without explicitly putting them into words (i.e., emotional introspection), can decrease amygdala activity and increase activity in vlPFC. Hence, according to the authors, the use of language in affect labeling can be seen as a cue that ignites this vital process of self-reflection.

3. Reduction of Uncertainty

By using labels to categorize our feelings, we may be reducing uncertainty about our “nebulous” emotional states. This reduction of uncertainty may further help shed light on the tendency of the amygdala to deactivate during affect labeling. Since the activation of the amygdala is implicated in novel and salient circumstances, reducing uncertainty can lead to a decrease in amygdala arousal.

4. Symbolic Conversion

Another possible mechanism may stem from the abstract thinking involved in the process of converting emotional stimuli into language. In one study, labeling aversive images with abstract terms such as “object” or “human” produced similar downregulating effects of arousal as when participants labeled the emotions depicted in the images. Additionally, when participants categorized threatening stimuli as “natural” or “artificial” in origin, activity in vlPFC increased. Some researchers argue that the categorization that occurs when we convert emotions into language involves a symbolic abstraction of the stimulus and its causes, indicating to the higher processing regions of the brain that “the challenge has been dealt with” and there is no “additional utility in having the alarm (e.g., amygdala) continue to signal for attention” (Torre & Lieberman, 2018, p. 120). Thus, language offers a means to psychologically distance the person from the emotion-invoking stimulus while decreasing its emotional salience.

A note of caution for bilinguals: The language that you use to put your emotions into words matters. According to recent findings, affect labeling in a non-native language does not reduce amygdala activation, thus does not downregulate negative emotions. This may be due to the cognitive demands of foreign language processing that can undermine the regulatory effects of affect labeling. "The way you label it,” conclude the authors, “matters for the way you feel it.”

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