Recent neuroscience reveals a remarkable attribute of our brains — and how we can bring our thinking and feeling together to make our daily lives much better. And isn’t that what emotional intelligence is all about?
It’s a little after 3 pm, and I am stopped cold in traffic. I look ahead and see red brake lights for miles. “Ugh, Highway 1,” I mumble to myself.
I was running late and feeling frustrated. I even caught myself thinking negative thoughts about other drivers who had to switch lanes in front of me, which is never a good sign about my emotional state.
Then I thought to myself, “It’s not his fault. You are frustrated because you are stuck in traffic.”
And oddly, I felt a lot better. I relaxed my shoulders, turned on the radio, and continued to sit in traffic- but with less tension. It seemed like the simple act of recognizing my frustration to myself really helped. This seemed absurd to me, because if you had asked, I would have told you that I knew exactly what I was feeling and recognizing it would only make it worse. But in reality, I felt a lot better.
The Neuroscience of Stress and Naming Emotions
It turns out that there is a scientific basis to this phenomenon. Recent research from Dr. Michelle Craske at UCLA looked at the affect of labeling emotions on participants dealing with a fear of spiders. The participants were divided into four groups, based on the instructions they were given as they went through the steps of exposure: label the fearful emotions about the spider, think differently about the spider so it doesn’t feel as threatening, distract yourself from the fearful emotions about the spider, and those who received no instructions of how to think about the spider.
Interestingly, the group that was instructed to label their fearful emotions about the spider showed less physiological signs of anxiety than the other groups. And those who vocalized their fearful emotions during the exposure showed even lower signs of anxiety. Like with my own labeling of my frustration in traffic, the recognizing and naming of emotions appears to make them less powerful.
Naming our emotions can provide us with essential space from the emotion. The step from “I am this…” to “I am feeling this…” means that we are not that emotion exclusively. And also reminds us that the emotion is temporary. When we remember that we are greater than what we are feeling in that moment, we can be at peace with the feeling, and simply listen to what that emotional data is trying to tell us.
Could something as simple as naming your emotions help you go through each day with a lighter, more pleasant attitude? Try it out next time you feel stuck, and share your story below!