Talking or writing about emotions influences our mental health. In this Psychiatric Times article, Mindpath Health’s Loise King Waller, PhD, discusses how translating our feelings into descriptive words can soften the feelings of stress and anxiety.

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There is something therapeutic about putting feelings into words. Many of us feel compelled to shed negative feelings and sort through stressful experiences by talking about them, instinctively seeking out a trusted, receptive listener. Others benefit from journaling about these trials, filling books with cathartic confessions to the self.

In telling our stories, we translate our feelings into descriptive words, an endeavor known as affect labeling. In doing so, the feelings of stress and anxiety are often softened, a phenomenon long recognized and reflected in literature.

Consider what Shakespeare wrote in 1606: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” Talking about our troubles may be clarifying, provide reality testing, and strengthen interpersonal connection. More important, though, may be the fact that the conversion of feelings to words appears to have a distinct and immediate calming effect on us.

Recognizing and naming emotions

Toward the end of the last century, researchers investigating the mind-body connection began designing experiments to test the hypothesis that the expression or repression of feelings can have different consequences for a given individual. In the ensuing years, the inability to identify and express emotions—known as alexithymia—rapidly came to be recognized as a transdiagnostic risk factor for mental health disorders.

Alexithymia has been implicated in a broad range of problems including schizophrenia, personality disorder, major depression, autism, substance abuse, aggression, and self-injurious behavior. Research indicates that alexithymia is prominent in numerous forensic populations, including disruptive adolescents, adolescent sexual offenders, perpetrators of cyberbullying, and adult offenders compared to healthy controls. In addition to its connection with aggression, alexithymia is linked to a higher risk of suicide.

Research on neurocognition and affect labeling

Affect labeling eases our burden and provides relief, but how does it happen? Focal magnetic imaging technology (fMRI) has provided a previously unavailable means by which to explore the activation and deactivation of the amygdala, the part of the brain known to play a key role in the processing of emotions.

In 2007, a fascinating study utilizing fMRI technology examined the neurocognitive effects of affect labeling on the amygdala and the brain in general. Earlier studies had suggested that labeling emotionally evocative images reduces amygdala arousal. This study sought to distinguish whether the linguistic processing of an emotional image results in a greater diminution of amygdala activity than the perceptual processing of the same image.

Significantly, the ability to carefully perceive and distinguish the rich complexity in emotional experiences is a key component of a good many psychotherapeutic interventions. Equally important is that self-awareness of emotional experiences is considered a primary feature of dispositional mindfulness.

Social media

One study tracked the emotional evolution of Twitter users. The researchers selected germane tweets by searching for the words “I feel …” followed by positive or negative emotion words, such as “good,” “bad,” or “sad.” They then conducted a sentiment analysis of all other tweets posted by the user in the 6 hours before and after the seminal one. The findings indicated that following a tweet expressing negative affect, there was a rapid return to an emotional baseline.

Mindfulness as an alexithymia intervention

Studies have confirmed that mindfulness is correlated with greater emotion differentiation and less emotion lability and emotion dysregulation. Research indicates that individuals high in dispositional, or trait, mindfulness have an especially effective and robust response to affect labeling. Emotional differentiation is considered a facet of mindfulness.

The correlation between mindfulness and emotion granularity has encouraged researchers to investigate whether improving mindfulness could have beneficial consequences on granularity in those relatively low in differentiation. Early studies have indeed provided support for the prospect that mindfulness-based interventions can be an appropriate treatment for alexithymia.

Concluding thoughts

These findings offer grounds for optimism. We are born with the desire to put feelings into words, and it seems that talking about these feelings may be an embedded mechanism of self-soothing. As one researcher describes it, “success of the talking cure harkens back to gatherings around ancient campfires.”

We may be unaware of it as it happens, but when we transform feelings into words, we are implicitly regulating our emotional state and ameliorating discomfort. Those who can identify and articulate emotion with greater precision garner superior benefits in the reduction of negative emotions.

Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.

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