What is Affect Labeling?
When experiencing a negative emotion, we often try to ignore it, pretend it’s not there, or distract ourselves. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of energy and does not always work. A surprisingly effective strategy to deal with a negative emotion is to actually stay with the emotion, identify it, and name it in your mind or say it out loud. Psychologists call it Affect Labeling (naming your feelings).
This technique may sound simplistic, but it is actually based on solid neuroscience research. Interestingly, some of the research was done on arachnophobiacs (folks that are terrified of spiders). Those courageous research subjects had to get very close to a tarantula, while one group had to label their scary feelings (“I feel anxious the disgusting tarantula will jump on me”), another group tried to engage in positive self-talk (“Looking at the little spider is not dangerous for me”), and two other groups either said irrelevant distracting things (“There is a TV in my home”) or did not say anything.
Which group had the least fear?
If you guessed that it was the first group – you guessed right!
This is consistent with unhooking (defusion) – a technique often used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). A simple way to unhook (defuse) from a painful emotion is to notice and name it: “Here is my anxiety,” “I am noticing a feeling of sadness,“ “I am noticing that my heart is racing.“ This simple intervention diminishes the power that our feelings, emotions, and thoughts have over us.
So the bottom line is – putting feelings into words quickly and effectively diminishes their negative impact.
Behavior change that is consistent with personal values is the purpose of psychotherapy. To help you engage in behavior change that is consistent with your values, use this acronym: LLAMA
L – label your inner events including thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and urges.
L – let go of the struggle to control those inner events
A – allow what’s happening inside to be present
M – mindfulness of the present moment helps us make choices based on the “here & now.”
A – approaching what matters by taking steps in the direction of your value.
In addition to becoming more effective in dealing with our emotions, these techniques train our minds to become observers of our emotions, as opposed to being immersed in them.