Tell us How You Feel, Not What You Think

“How are you?”

You are probably asked this question every day. It is a greeting as common as “good morning.” You most likely respond automatically with some generic phrase, not accurately revealing your present emotional state, like “Oh, I’m fine,” or “I could be better.” This is fine in casual social situations; a “How are you?” usually isn’t an invitation to launch into a deep psychotherapy session. However, identifying and labeling your feelings is necessary to begin moderating their intensity. Studies have found that giving your feelings a name does more than give you the ability to communicate them to others; it influences how you experience them.

The physiology of feelings

People tend to use the words emotion and feeling interchangeably, but from a neuroscience perspective, the words describe different processes. Emotions are a physical reaction to external stimulation. The fight-or-flight response is an example. If someone points a gun at you, your heart will pick up speed, your breathing rate will accelerate, and you may feel discomfort in your stomach. These are all physical responses. Feelings arise out of your perception of these physical changes. Your thinking mind becomes aware that something has changed. Your feeling, in the above scenario, may be fear.

Language influences how we perceive the world

Language is how humans put the intangibles — ideas, concepts, feelings — into a knowable form. For example, by labeling that simmering feeling of unease as anger, you have captured it with language. Your brain will then deal with it. Dr. Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, uses the phrase “name it to tame it” to sum up this phenomenon.

Words influence the brain’s chemistry

Siegel explains that emotions rise out of the lower brain. When it perceives a threat, signals fire, creating an agitated state. This alarm interferes with the functioning of the upper brain, the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for, among other things, logic and decision-making. This explains why fear might cause you to throw logic out the window. According to Siegel, if you can identify the emotion that is creating this agitated state, your thinking brain will recognize the harm it is causing and release chemicals to sooth the lower brain.

Labeling feelings to overcome depression

Depression and anxiety are classified as emotional disorders. Someone who is depressed may not be consciously aware of the source of their symptoms, making it difficult to find relief. Giving a name to negative feelings can help defuse their power. This is not always an easy task. It is quite normal to be at loss for words when it comes to describing how you feel. The following list may help put a label to those negative feelings:

  • Anxious
  • Grieved
  • Angered
  • Disgusted
  • Discouraged
  • Embarrassed
  • Overwhelmed
  • Lost/empty/confused
  • Conflicted

Once you have put a label to your feelings, the physical response rising from your lower brain will settle down. You will be better able to think with clarity and logic. Your perception of the world, and your place in it, will not suffer the distortions created by out-of-control emotions.