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Affect Labeling: The benefit of putting feelings into words

coaching emotion regulation individual development

On the face of it labeling our feelings might not appear to have any benefits. Yet, research has shown that it helps to decrease the intensity of our affective experiences, producing an effect similar to re-appraisal - one of the most well-studied forms of emotion-regulation.

In their review of affect labeling, Jared Torre and Matthew Lieberman from the University of California describe the many benefits of this simple emotion-regulation strategy. These authors cite experiments where participants who applied affect labeling to emotionally charged stimuli reported diminished levels of affect, compared with those who did not engage in affect labeling. Reductions in emotional distress were also reported.

At a neural level affect labeling has been shown to increase ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC) activity, a region of the brain often associated with cognitive control. The increase in vlPFC activity has been identified as the cause of the reduction in emotion generation (via decreased amygdala activity) during the affect-labeling process.

Studies investigating the immediate and delayed effects of affect labeling reported responses such as decreased heart rate and cardiac output, decreased skin conductance (indicating lower levels of arousal) when participants were exposed to aversive stimuli, and increased positive affect. Many of these effects were found up to one week later.

Those who applied affect labeling to emotionally charged stimuli reported diminished levels of affect, compared with those who did not engage in affect labeling

Many of these studies involved experiments with people who were instructed to view negatively-charged or distressing images or video, as well as those who reported phobias or anxiety - including those with public speaking anxiety. This indicates that affect labeling may be effective when applied to a wide range of situations in which we feel the need to regulate our emotions.

By labeling our feelings (eg. “I feel annoyed”), or by labeling the emotionally evocative aspect of the stimulus (eg. “That person is annoyed”), Torre and Lieberman maintain that affect labeling has demonstrated experiential, autonomic, neural and behavioral effects similar to those found in other forms of emotion regulation. Despite being counterintuitive, affect labeling, particularly given its ease of implementation, appears to be a solid choice when it comes to regulating our emotional life.

References:
1. Torre, Jared & Lieberman, Matthew. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review. 10. 175407391774270. 10.1177/1754073917742706.