By Aki Shrestha
Emotional vocabulary. Finding the appropriate words to describe your emotions. Sound simple? How hard can it possibly be to communicate how you are feeling when you are well spoken, articulate and have an extensive vocabulary? Well… harder than you think. One of the most vital and primary steps to taking care of your emotional and mental health is being able to actually understand what and how you feel. When asked how they are feeling, most people can be heard saying “I feel good”, “feel down”, “ feel upset” or “feel angry”. These seem within reach for most. This is because emotions like anger are stronger emotions that are easy to feel. If you imagine an iceberg, anger is what can be seen above the water. What about the part of the iceberg underneath the water? Is it sadness, jealousy, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt or something else that is making you angry?
Not being able to put into words how we feel can be extremely overwhelming. It restricts our capacity to think and act clearly and can often manifest in physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. It can result in our reactions being excessive relative to the situation due to all our emotions coming at us like something explosive, which then results in more guilt and self-blame. Labelling emotions not only helps us manage these somatic symptoms and regulate our emotions, but also helps us communicate better in our relationships and go through life more smoothly.
Numerous neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that when individuals are shown pictures of faces with strong emotions without any labels, they display greater activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that has increased activation to ambiguous situations and activates our alarm system to protect against danger). However, by just attaching a label to that emotion, the brain images showed less activity in the amygdala and increases in their right Ventrolateral prefrontal cortex; a part of the brain that is involved in vigilance and categorisation of emotions. This reduces the impact of the emotion by inhibiting our behaviour and processing our emotions so that they are easier to manage.
So how do we learn to process our emotions? Instead of trying to stop feeling a certain negative emotion (which is what most of us try and do), it might be more helpful to get closer to it, identify it and put a label on it. If finding the right emotion is extremely difficult, it often helps to have a list of adjectives that describe numerous emotions. Once you have identified it, find a couple more that describe that emotion. Does feeling annoyed or resentful describe your feeling better than angry? Does it lessen or magnify the impact? Glancing at those emotions time and again and putting pen to paper regarding what the effect of that emotion has on your body is often a good start. Those of you who are action oriented are probably wondering, now that I have identified the emotions, now what? The problem with us is that we are always in a rush to “fix” these negative feelings. Are we in such a hurry to change our happier, more positive emotions?
The simple attention to your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations without judgement and a desire to rectify is the basic premise of Mindfulness, a technique borrowed from ancient Eastern Buddhist traditions by evidence based psychotherapy approaches like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The goal is to observe and describe your thoughts and emotions without engaging with them. This allows us to be more present and more engaged in the moment. At the end of the day, those are only your thoughts, not facts. Using what psychologists call Diffusion, attempt to distance yourself from those thoughts that are generating those emotions. Visualise them as leaves on a stream, clouds passing the sky or even just adding “I’m having the thought that…” to your thought to help distance yourself from what you believe are facts. While these techniques require time and effort to learn, it will help get a better understanding of ourselves and enable us to regulate our emotions better.
Aki is available for Psychology appointments at our Docklands Location.