Affect Labeling

05.03.2020 |

Episode #8 of the course Improving your self-talk by Reed Rawlings


Welcome to Day 8!

Yesterday, we learned our first tool for improving our inner critic: self-distancing. This practice of emotion-regulation acts as a way to improve mental clarity around difficult situations. Today, we’ll talk about our next tool, “affect labeling,” a way of confronting our emotions rather than avoiding them.

If you’re anything like me when you’re upset, you probably practice a form of emotional regulation called “reappraisal.” This is the subdomain of “distancing,” where we try and reduce the magnitude of emotional trigger through distraction.

When I’m frustrated, I spend more time at the gym. If I’m sad, I’ll watch hours of YouTube trying to cheer myself up. I have a few distractions that I default to so I can give myself mental space. This behavior rarely, if ever, serves as a solution to my problems, but it makes me feel good in the moment.

There’s another subdomain of emotion-regulation, “reinterpretation,” which is what we’ll focus on today. In a 2018 study, psychologists Jared Torre and Matthew Lieberman reviewed the concept of affect labeling—more simply, putting feelings into words.

In the moment, affect labeling doesn’t really feel like emotion regulation. The act is so simple, it can seem like nothing at all is happening. But in our brain, there’s a subtle neurological shift taking place. When people label their emotions, their amygdala shows less reactivity.

That’s important for a number of reasons. Our amygdala is often described as our “lizard brain.” It is specifically designed to react to a stimulus; there’s not much forward-thinking involved. It’s a useful tool when experiencing danger or assessing perceived threats. But if we’re merely watching a scary movie or stuck in traffic, responding with base emotions will cause more stress than solutions.

The same is true for our emotional states. When we let our minds simply react, we give it free rein to make a bigger fuss than necessary.

In a 2013 study, participants using affect labeling showed a decreased heart rate and cardiac output. Both are physiological signs that a person is calming down.

In practice, affect labeling is no different than talking about your feelings. Experiments over the past decade have shown that this can take place through writing or in-person communication. In one study, participants were given a predefined list of words to describe how they felt. Regardless of the avenue, emotion labeling yielded positive benefits.

Other examples of affect labeling look like:

• writing a post on social media sharing your experience

• talking to a friend about a negative experience

• talking to a therapist about your feelings

• describing a difficult situation as if you were watching in the third person

• highlighting a particularly emotional trigger

Let’s practice affect labeling. You can choose one of the examples above or make up your own. Whatever you do, describe the emotions of a situation, what you felt and what you believe caused those feelings.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about expressive writing. This is another practice we should build into our lives for improving our self-talk.

Thanks for reading!


Recommended book

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey


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