Mental & Emotional Health

Labeling Emotions Can Help You Manage Them Better

Is that anger boiling up? Could that tension in your shoulders be a sign of fear, or maybe worry? Are you feeling sad, disappointed, dejected even, or simply a little uncomfortable?

No matter what you feel, the ability to accurately label your emotions can help you manage them better, according to researchers.

Affect labeling, as the practice is called, can ease guilt, anger, fear, and other powerful feelings and lead to better communication and compassion, says Melody Wilding, a Manhattan-based therapist, coach, and professor of human behavior at The City University of New York, Hunter College.

In one study, led by UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman, participants were shown photographs of people with angry or fearful faces.

The emotion-prompting pictures caused a burst of activity in the amygdala. Part of the limbic system, the amygdala is the brain region responsible for emotional reactions, decision making, and memory functions.

While activity in the amygdala spiked when study participants looked at the angry faces, that activity decreased when participants labeled the emotion as “anger,” Lieberman said in the study published in the journal Psychological Science.

And the more nuanced and specific people get when describing their feelings, the better able they are to regulate them, Wilding says.

Instead of being bowled over by powerful emotions and erupting in anger or fleeing in fear, people can learn to identify and express what they are feeling, take a pause to consider a response, and then articulate their experience in a way that can help them feel understood and validated.

This measured approach improves awareness and problem solving, soothes difficult relationships, and even builds compassion and connection, Wilding says.

Still, few people have a vast emotional vocabulary. When asked to describe their feelings people often rely on vague, one-word responses like “stressed” or “upset” or “good” or “fine” and fail to express the depth of their experience.

A limited emotional vocabulary makes it harder to cope with strong feelings, according to research led by Ohio State University psychologist Amelia Aldao.

Yet, by practicing and playing with different emotional words and experiences, people can develop a broader emotional lexicon, Wilding says.

Wilding often gives her clients a chart listing dozens of emotions. As they share their experiences, she has them match their feelings with the words on the sheet. You can do this at home. Print out one of the many lists of emotions available on line and match specific words to any feelings bubbling up.

Or practice exploring new emotions in your writing or conversations. Challenge yourself to be specific and notice what is happening in your body and mind as you experience different feelings.

Journaling can also help people hone in on what they are feeling. Wilding suggests keeping a gratitude journal, or doing a daily gratitude exercise in your mind to practice optimistic language.