A new study has found that labeling negative emotions as you experience them can help you overcome them.
Researchers at UCLA recruited 88 participants who all had a fear of spiders. The aim of the study was to test which “emotional regulation” strategies were most effective in overcoming this fear.
In the first part of the experiment, everyone was instructed to walk closer and closer to a live tarantula in an open container and eventually touch it if they could.
Each individual’s fear response was measured based on how close the participant could get to the spider, their reported level of distress, and physiological responses such as how much the person’s hands were sweating (which is usually a sign of fear and anxiety).
The participants were then divided into 4 separate groups. Each group was seated in front of a tarantula in a closed container and instructed to do the following:
Group A: Subjects were asked to describe the emotions they were experiencing and to label their reactions to the tarantula. For example: “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.”
Group B: Subjects were asked to use neutral terms that did not convey their fear and were aimed at making the experience seem less threatening. For example: “That little spider can’t hurt me; I’m not afraid of it.”
Group C: Subjects were asked to say something that wasn’t relevant to the spider.
Group D: Subjects were not asked to say anything. They were just exposed to the spider.
After this session, each participant was again asked to approach the tarantula in an open container, and their fear response was measured a second time.
Surprisingly, it was found that Group A significantly outperformed all other groups in overcoming their fear. Individuals who labeled and described their emotions were more likely to get closer to the spider than the other three groups. They also showed less physiological responses, such as less sweat.
In addition, psychologists analyzed the words people used to describe their fear – they found that those who used a larger number of negative words tended to face their fears better.
Michelle Craske, a professor of psychology at UCLA and the senior author of the study says:
- “The implication [of this research] is to encourage patients to label the emotional responses they are experiencing and label the characteristics of the stimuli — to verbalize their feelings. That lets people experience the very things they are afraid and say, ‘I feel scared and I’m here.’ They’re not trying to push it away and say it’s not so bad. Be in the moment and allow yourself to experience whatever you’re experiencing.“
Readers of The Emotion Machine shouldn’t be too surprised by these findings. I’ve long advocated that self-improvement requires that you become more honest with yourself and give yourself permission to experience both the “good” and “bad” in your life.
This includes accepting your thoughts and emotions when they happen, whatever they may be, and not running away from them. Only then can we begin to understand ourselves better and grow as individuals.
This strategy is very similar to what Buddhists have been practicing for thousands of years. In mindfulness meditation, practitioners often make “mental notes” of the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing in the moment. This is believed to help individuals overcome these negative states by gaining greater awareness and insight.
These findings are also now backed by some neuroscience. There is a part of the brain called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex that plays a major role in emotional regulation. Brain researchers have found that this part of the brain is active when we label our feelings and emotional reactions.
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