Labeling emotions, or putting feelings into words, is also called affect labeling.
Affect labeling can help regulate emotions and reduce negative impacts linked to them.
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Feelings can sometimes seem overwhelming, but there's a simple approach to making them manageable. Instead of trying to bury them, you do the opposite: you name them. This approach is called "affect labeling."
A Familiar Example: Affect Labeling for Children
If you have spent time around children or you are a parent, you might use affect labeling regularly - for them. It might happen most frequently around obvious or visible emotional reactions, such as during a crying episode. At that point, a parent might say,
"I can see that you are feeling disappointed that we're not buying any toys at the store today.
"It seems like you are frustrated that the tower you were building on fell down."
These sentences do not just acknowledge and validate the child's feelings. They also name them. This can make them feel less scary and more manageable to the child.
Affect labeling can work for adults, too, even if you already know the names of emotions. As Institute of Coaching points out, you can use affect labeling to label your own emotions, or you can label another's feelings.
How It Works
You're not trying to "quiet" emotions in the sense of burying them. As you can see in the above description, you're identifying them. This can help enable you to accept the feelings and deal with them.
In addition, labeling your feelings can limit negative effects of them. An article in Emotion Review explains the science behind affect labeling. It has physiological effects on your brain and body, such as these.
Less activity in emotion generation areas of the brain, such as the amygdala.
More activity in emotion regulation areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex.
A weaker adrenaline response, or not as much of an increased heart rate.
Weaker feelings of distress linked to emotions.
These can lead to making different behavioral choices than you might have made without naming your emotions.
Examples of Affect Labeling
Let's take two examples of how affect labeling might lead to positive behavior changes. In the first, let's say you are scheduled to give a presentation at work. You label your feeling as "nervousness" and suddenly feel much better. You ace your presentation.
In another example, let's say you find yourself eating ice cream late at night every Sunday night even though you had not intended to. You finally realize that you are feeling dread at the thought of going back to work on Monday morning, and are using the ice cream as an escape. "Dread" is the emotion you are labeling. Once you realize that, you can discover that what you really are dreading is waking up early again on Monday, so you decide to get more sleep on weekends so that Monday morning isn't so hard. Then, you find that you are not diving for the ice cream anymore!
Affect labeling can be part of mindfulness, which involves acknowledging and accepting the here and now without making a judgment. Affect labeling identifies the emotion and lets you accept that you are feeling that way. You're not denying it, but rather exploring it so you can manage it better.
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