Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation

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Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation
Publication Date: 
March, 2018
Putting Feelings into Words

Authors Torre and Lieberman first orient us on emotion regulation: Successful emotion regulation is often thought of as something that requires mental or physical effort. It works because it either actively changes how we view the challenging situation (reinterpreting) or creates space between us and the challenge so that it is less evocative (distancing). What is less expected, and yet is supported by a growing body of research, is that the simple and essentially effortless strategy of putting feelings into words — what is called “affect labeling,” can be an important way to regulate emotions. 

What is emotion regulation?

The authors describe emotion regulation:

When an individual experiences an emotion, it elicits loosely connected responses across experiential, physiological, and behavioral domains. Emotion regulation is often defined as a manipulation of the quality, duration, or intensity of an emotion, that in turn changes outputs in these domains. 

What is affect labeling and what is the impact? 

The what: 

  • One can label one’s own feelings (e.g., “I feel angry”). 
  • Or, one can label the feelings of others (e.g., “That person looks angry”…).
  • Affect labeling can be done privately in our thoughts, or it can be engaged by speaking, writing, or even selecting among provided affect labels. 
  • At its core, however, there is the conscious conversion of the evocative experience into a linguistic symbol.

The impact:

  • Neural and physiological changes: These include reduced activity in parts of the brain associated with emotion generation (e.g., the amygdala) and increased activity in those associated with emotion regulation (e.g., the pre-frontal cortex), along with decreased autonomic nervous system activity (e.g., decreased heart rate, cardiac output).
  • Psychological changes: Participants report that the evocative experience is modulated and that they have less distress.
  • Behavioral changes: Many downstream behavior effects have been reported, including increased test performance for students who wrote about their test-related anxieties before a test.

The authors report that regardless of the specific form affect labeling takes, research on affect labeling has demonstrated the same effects in the experiential, autonomic, neural, and behavioral domains as found in other forms of emotion regulation.

A caveat? The authors caution that our picture of how and why affect labeling works is at an early stage. 

Coaching Translation

Words matter. Coaches can help clients, providers can help patients, leaders can help their teams, and we can all help ourselves reduce emotional reactivity with a simple step: translating the emotional experience into words.

Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706

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