Getting Unstuck: The Power of Naming Emotions

When you’re anxious, angry or upset, do you wish you had a magic button to calm yourself  down? Well, I have good news. Recent neuroscience reveals a remarkable attribute of our brains that isn’t exactly a magic calming button, but it’s pretty darn close.

by Michael Miller


What Makes Traffic Better?

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, because if you had asked, I would have told you that I knew exactly what I was feeling – frustrated! – and recognizing it would only make it worse. But in reality, I felt a lot better. As it turns out, there is a scientific basis to this phenomenon.

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Naming Emotions to Reduce Anxiety: “That Tarantula Is Terrifying!”

Consider this experiment from the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Michelle Craske tested out this hypothesis about labeling emotions with a group of participants with a fear of spiders. She started the experiment by having them approach a large, live tarantula in an open container outdoors (you read that correctly) – and told them to keep getting closer until they touched it, if they could get far. Then the participants were brought inside, put in front of another live tarantula in a container, and divided into four groups, based on the instructions they were given for how to think about the spider.

The first group was asked to describe the experience of being around the spider and label what they were feeling. For example, “I’m scared of that huge, hairy tarantula.” Now this is actually a radical way to respond. Normally the goal is to make people think differently about the spider so that it appears less threatening – and this is exactly what the second group was instructed to do. They would say, for example, “The spider is in a cage and can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid.” The third group was instructed to say something that was irrelevant to the spider, and the fourth group was simply exposed, not instructed to say anything at all.

One week later, all the participants were re-exposed to the live tarantula in the outdoor setting, and told to get as close as possible, and touch it with a finger if they could. Dr. Craske and her colleagues measured how close all the participants got to the spider, how distressed they were, and their physiological responses, specifically how much the participants’ hands sweated, which is a good measure of fear. So what did they find? The group that labeled their fear of the spider performed far better than the other groups. They got closer, were less emotionally aroused, and their hands were sweating significantly less. Like with my own labeling of my frustration in traffic, the recognizing and naming of emotions seemed to defang the fearful emotions.

How can this be? Naming emotions seems to bridge the gap between thoughts and feelings. The step from “I am this…” to “I am feeling this…”, or even, “Michael is 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. So next time you are feeling a difficult emotion, start by labeling it: I am angry, or sad, or anxious. Just tell it like it is.

Naming Emotions Opens the Door

Making our emotions less intense is great, but that isn’t really the end goal, is it? It simply cracks open the door, and calms down our emotional response so we can combine our thinking and feeling more effectively – and that is what practicing EQ is all about.

Take fear or stress for instance. When we are afraid or stressed, our brain can only respond based off of previously stored patterns of behavior. Evolutionary, this makes sense. Evaluating your options when you see a tiger guarantees that the only outcome is the tiger eating you. So when our brain perceives a threat, it only lets you respond off of previously stored patterns, which you can enact instantaneously. But that is rarely the best possible reaction, unless you really are reacting in a life or death situation.

The lowered intensity of our emotions after we name them allows us to take it a step further, and ask:

What choices do I have? This is the choose yourself part of the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, which we abbreviate as KCG – Know, Choose, Give.
And then ask yourself:

What do I really want? This is the give yourself part of the KCG model.

But just naming your emotions is a great way to start practicing EQ. Try it out next time you feel stuck, and share your story below!



More Emotional Intelligence Resources

Sometimes we don’t know exactly how we’re feeling, or we don’t have the words to describe it, which makes naming our emotions difficult. That’s why emotional literacy is the foundation of practicing emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to name and describe emotions, to be fluent in the language of emotions. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a great tool for increasing emotional vocabulary – check out our interactive, online version:

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: Feelings Wheel

For more practical tips to practice emotional intelligence, like naming feelings, download our free Practicing EQ eBook:

Practicing EQ eBook


Michael Miller
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