Label Your Emotions

Recent research on mindfulness, a mental skill based on your self-awareness, suggests that people are able to calm themselves down and gain more perspective on a negative emotional state just be naming it.

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues at UCLA, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans were carried out on 30 people, while they were asked to look at photos of people's faces in various emotional states. Some of these photos included descriptions of the possible emotional states of the person, such as "depressed", “angry” or "excited". The photos also had two possible names written alongside them, one male and one female.

Participants were split into two groups and asked to choose either the appropriate emotional label or the appropriate gender-specific name. In the first group when the label chosen was a negative emotion, the activity in the area of the brain associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences became more active, and the area associated with emotional processing, the amygdala, was calmed.

This change in brain activity did not occur when the subjects simply chose the appropriate gender-name for the person in the photo.

The technique of naming negative emotions is common in mindfulness meditation. The meditator deals with negative ideas that occur by saying, "anger", "fear", “distrust” or otherwise putting a label on interfering thoughts, emotions and feelings, and then returns their attention to breathing.

In the study, subjects who were rated as more "mindful" according to a questionnaire they filled out, showed a much greater effect. After labelling the emotional state, their ‘thinking area’ was much more active, and there was a much greater calming effect in their emotional processing area of the brain.

This may partly explain the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation in reducing stress, and so improving overall health.

Mindfulness in everyday life

Being overtaken by negative emotions reduces your ability to think clearly in almost any situation. But while it only slows down your thinking in unrelated situations, such as having to work out how to split a bill while you are feeling angry, if the negative emotions are triggered by the thinking itself, your judgement and clarity of thinking will be impacted to a much greater extent.

Imagine you are discussing an issue you have strong beliefs about, and your opponent raises a point that makes you angry? In this case, you are not likely to agree with much they have to says from that point on, even if they go on to make points you would usually agree with. If you have to make a decision during or as a result of that discussion, there is a real chance that you could make the wrong decision!

So next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel a negative emotion building inside you, try taking a breath and tell yourself, "anger", "hurt" or whatever emotion it is you are feeling, and you will find you can then be more objective and think clearly again.

Just like in the study above, if you want to improve this ability further try practicing a mindfulness meditation.

 

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