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Why Saying Just One Word Can Calm Runaway Emotions

A research-proven trick that can help you get a grip.

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I used to feel nervous when I spotted a certain imposing woman who was several rungs above me in the hierarchy at work.

One day, I admitted, “Boy, I really feel intimidated by her.” Intimidated. As soon as I said the magic word to myself, my fearful feelings abated. Acknowledging my fear had helped reduce it to more manageable levels; later, I considered how I could constructively deal with my emotion.

I had just experienced the magic power of labeling. Putting my emotion into a word—even a scary one like “intimidating”—had paradoxically helped me get a grip.

If you would like to experience the benefits of labeling, here's how to get started:

Name It.

“Sad.” “Furious.” “Disrespected.” Whatever your emotion, you will feel some immediate relief just by putting your feelings into words, whether in your mind or out loud.

The formal name for this process is “affect labeling,” which involves attaching a label to the messy combination of physical and mental upset you experience. Doing so allows you to “cool down” your feelings and manage them better.

Your feelings will not disappear; nor do you want them to. You need all your feelings to signal you about the dangers and opportunities you face from without and within. But you don’t want your feelings to overwhelm you, and labeling helps prevent that.

If you can’t find the precise word or words to describe your feelings, no problem: Consider, and recite, the four basic feelings—mad, sad, glad, and scared—and choose the one that fits.

Why It Works

Recently, researchers discovered why attaching a word to our messy emotions is such an effective way to lessen mental chaos.

In a series of studies by UCLA psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, participants who attached labels to emotions like “anger” or “fear” had less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain which governs our fight-or-flight response. These individuals also had more activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain. Labeling their feelings shifted them from an emotional state to a thinking state. Lieberman explained:

“In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

“Hitting the brakes” is beneficial because it can keep you from responding impulsively, drowning in negative feelings, or becoming aggressive in a counter-productive way. Soothing negative emotions may also help you keep your eyes on your goals and increase self-control.

An Experiment

To become better at labeling your own emotions, practice for a few minutes a day. In addition to tuning into your emotions, you could also choose to tune in to physical states, such as “hungry,” “tired,” or "on my last nerve."

Once you label your emotion, pause. Just notice the feeling without reacting—or judging yourself. If you want, say something accepting to yourself, like, “Oh, so I’m feeling intimidated right now"; Yes, this is sadness"; or, “I’m angry and that’s natural in this situation.” Just accepting your feelings will increase your ability to tolerate distress in future situations.

After you label the emotion and pause to “sit with” it for a little while, consider what actions—if any—you might want to take. For example: “OK, I’m irritable. I think I’ll get some lunch before I get even more snappish.” (Of course, in a genuine emergency, use your fight-or-flight response to save yourself from harm. Call for help when you need it.)

Extend It

Labeling feelings has long been a part of mindfulness practices that are designed to quiet mental turmoil. For example, it can be the first step in a longer process of self-exploration called the RAIN method. But it’s nice to know that the simple technique of labeling your feeling-state can ease emotional pain in a nanosecond.

(c) Meg Selig, 2015. For permissions, contact me here.

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