Label Your Feelings

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Having trouble calming your feelings of anger, worry, or sadness?  Learn a simple exercise for getting these feelings under better control more quickly.

When we are experiencing a strong feeling, we essentially become that feeling.  If I am very angry, then at that moment I am the anger and it permeates my entire being.  If I am very worried, then at that moment it is difficult for me to see beyond that worry, and I become one with it.  I may focus in on my anger by thinking about the bad qualities and behavior of the person towards whom my anger is directed.  This can start a vicious cycle of feeling even more angry and having more exaggerated thoughts about the badness or evil of the other person.  The same goes for worry.  I may focus all of my thinking on the reasons for my worry and the terrifying outcomes that at that moment I believe are likely or even certain to happen.

One way of interrupting these cycles of escalating emotions is to engage in labeling of those feelings.  When you realize that you are very angry for example, the idea is to stop, breathe slowly and deeply, and say to yourself, “Breathing in, I recognize there is anger in me.  Breathing out, I see the anger inside of me.”  You see the anger as an object that you have to hold and soothe, much like soothing a crying baby.  You could even more simply say “anger” as you breathe in, and “anger” as you breathe out.  You can do the same for any other strong negative emotion, “fear,” “sadness,” “worry,” etc.

The idea of this exercise is to see the feeling as something that is separate from yourself, although it is currently with you.  This will not solve any problem that may have instigated the process of anger or worry, but it can bring calm and perspective to allow you to deal more constructively with the negative situation.  Once you have breathed and labeled for a while, you may be able to visualize placing the feeling in a gently flowing river and watching it slowly float downstream.

Although those of you with little experience in mindfulness may see this as a somewhat “new age-y” kind of thing to do, there is growing scientific evidence that it helps.  I will reference one study examining this at the end of this post.  In essence, this research found that such an exercise slows the activity in a part of our brain that is involved in emotional reactions and increases activity in a part of our brain that is involved in thinking, planning, and inhibiting impulsive reactions.

Your feelings are important and can be a spur to action that helps you.  However, they often spiral out of control and lead us to experiences that ultimately keep us from getting what we want.  It’s better to think of your feelings as being your employee and not your boss.  Give the breathing and labeling exercise a try and take notice of what benefits you see in your life as a result.

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

 

Creswell, J. D., Way, B. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), 560-565.

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