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Reduce Tension and Anger; Understand Emotions and Feelings

By February 20, 2013Blog
labelling emotions

Sometimes you can feel incredibly overwhelmed by emotions, negative emotions.  They can be especially difficult to deal with when you do not understand the underlying reasons for feeling these negative emotions.

As human beings with brains, we are naturally inclined to want to make sense of things, emotions included.  When you don’t, it can feel like a nervous, uncomfortable, tense energy inside you.  You know your body and mind aren’t happy, they are telling you so, but the fact that you don’t know WHY makes it kind of difficult to resolve, right?  Right!

How do you resolve tension and negative feelings when you’re not sure where they stem from or what they are?  Your thoughts influence your emotions but if you don’t know where the thoughts are coming from, it can be really frustrating.  At the intensely confused end, it can feel like your head is jumbled up and you can’t make sense of simple everyday matters.  It can become a vacuum, sucking simple occurrences into this confusing whirlwind.

So how do you get this negative energy to dissipate?  You take time out to make sense of things; you take time to reflect on the emotions you are having and all the possible reasons why you might be having them.  You can then attach words, labels, to the emotions and automatically reduce the tension you feel.  Allow me to explain why.

Research shows that the amygdala (in the brain region) shows an increase in activity when you experience negative emotions.  One of the ways in which the amygdala responds to heightened activity is by initiating biological defences in the body in times of (perceived) danger, so as to prepare itself for a ‘fight or flight response’.

Research by UCLA’s psychologist Matthew Lieberman (2007) provides evidence to suggest that the increased activity in the amygdala when perceiving  something negative is reduced when a person attaches a word label to the emotion being experienced, e.g. “angry” or “scared”.  The attaching of a meaning to the emotional experience not only reduces the activity in the amygdala, it also simultaneously increases the activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the eyes and forehead that processes thoughts and emotions.  It’s important to note that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in problem solving.

Lieberman took care to test different variables by getting participants in the experiments to attach labels that did not relate to emotions and labels that did give meaning to the emotions being experienced.  Only the latter type of labels, those that put the emotions into words, caused an actual decrease in the amygdala’s activity suggesting that any old label does not reduce the brain’s defence response to negative emotions, only a label that actually gives a meaning to the emotion being experienced.

So, when you write in a journal or talk with your coach or therapist, now you can see why talking about the feelings, labelling those feelings with words, can actually help you to feel much better.

Some people write in a journal unaware of why it feels good; they just know that it does and so continue to do so.  Now you can understand the neuropsychological basis for it working.

When you give meaning and try to problem solve your emotional experiences, your brain tells the body to relax, that it does not need to trigger a cascade of danger-related defence responses.  It understands that you are proactively working through them and so the danger is reduced.

Imagine what happens in your brain and then consequently in your body, when you don’t try to make sense of your emotions.  If you’ve been having concerns in terms of your relationship with yourself, with people in general or your relationship with a significant other such as a spouse, and you’ve not dealt with the emotions for months or even years, then you’ll have kept your body in a state of defence.  Imagine what that mental and physiological state of defence against danger for a sustained period must be doing to you and to those around you as you try to get on with life whilst in this constant state of arousal to and defence against some perceived, unknown threat/danger.

Do you think it may have hindered how you’ve dealt with things?  Do you think it may have negatively affected your health?  Do you think it may have negatively impacted the way you communicate with others?  Do you think it may have negatively impacted your feelings towards yourself?  Of course!  I wouldn’t want to be in that mind or body that has been in this tense state for a prolonged period.  I’m sure you don’t want to be either.

Solutions To Reduce Tension:

  • Start taking time out for yourself to reflect, make sense of your emotions and explain the emotions to yourself using words, words that give meaning to the emotion, e.g. angry, sad, hurt.  Your mind and body will feel more relaxed when you have correctly identified the emotion so if you use a label that doesn’t fit, then you’ll know, and you’ll just need to search for the correct one.
  • Take time to write in a journal.  Sometimes it’s best to just pick up the pen and pad and start writing from the heart.  Remember all the while that the goal is to make sense of things.  Get a pad you like the look of so you enjoy writing in it.
  • Seek the help of a professional such as a coach so that they can help you to not only identify what’s happening for you, but also help you find a way out, quickly, so that you can be happy, healthy and successful in all areas of your life: financial, social, physical, spiritual, career, etc.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Thanks for this, Sam! I love learning about the mechanics of the brain and how it’s connected to everything we see, do, feel, etc. I can see this advice being exceptionally important for us “fixer” types. When I’m feeling a negative emotion, I immediately want to know WHY – otherwise, I’m too distracted to do anything else.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks for commenting, Carrie. Absolutely, can be so hard when you sense a tension that you cannot identify the cause of, and yes, I like to know as soon as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to shove those feelings away, which just corrodes them and/or their relationships, little by little, over time.

      As they say in your neck of the woods, have a great day! 😉

  • Love this…so needed at present by so many of us. ‘Self time’ is so important! More frequent, longer showers maybe one solution!!!

    • Sam says:

      Hello! That’s a great suggestion! Going for a walk or exercising without music and other distractions can also be great ways to have some reflective ‘self-time’. It is about finding ways that fit in with your lifestyle, no matter how busy you are. If people think they’re too busy for ‘me-time’, they’ll agree on the importance of it when they find they are less stressed and have greater clarity because they allowed themselves that time.