How do you feel right now?
Let’s do a quick exercise. How do you feel right now? Does a word pop-up? You could be anxious, sad, excited, happy, scared, or something else. Or you might be feeling a concoction of multiple emotions. Or perhaps you feel pretty relaxed right now.
If you are anything like me, it’s not easy describing how you feel at a given moment, especially when confronting a negative emotion. I often resort to distractions when trying to deal with negative emotions. However, putting how I feel into words or even attempting to do so is better. I have noticed that if I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious, just checking in with myself for a second, recognizing how I feel, and describing it can change my relationship with the emotion. I could be putting pen to paper or talking to a friend about it. Just saying ‘I feel anxious right now’ helps. What’s important is that I am not trying to fix anything, just acknowledging and accepting it. And this simple task changes my relationship with the ‘emotion’. I am no longer possessed by it. Rather, I can subject it to my curiosity. It doesn’t make the feeling go away but definitely makes it better. And there is a term for this, ‘affect labelling’, simply described as ‘putting your feelings into words’. I came across this term last week.
I stumbled upon a paper exploring the psychological, physiological and behavioral impact of `affect labelling`. In a study, participants were shown a negative emotionally evocative scene (the image of a snake). A set of participants were asked to simply look at the picture and observe passively. Another set viewed a similar image but also chose a label from three words at the bottom of the image (‘Anxious’, ‘Disgusted’, ‘Other’) that best matched their own emotional response. Following the images, they rated how unpleasant they felt on a scale of 0–3. Those who labelled the images felt less unpleasant compared to those who simply observed. There was also a decline in amygdala (part of the brain associated with emotional processes) activity for the participants who labelled their emotions.
In another study, a set of participants were asked to do affect labelling before performing an anxiety-inducing task (public speaking in this case). Participants who did so had a steeper decline in heart rate after public speaking than those who didn’t. There was also a bigger decline in skin conductance response, which is the variation in the level of skin moisture and conductivity and one of the ways to measure emotional arousal. I also came across a study (and this is my favourite) where students were given the task to write down their thoughts expressively immediately before taking a math exam. Just doing this simple task significantly improved their test scores.
I want to come back to my own experience with affect labelling. I have come to think of labelling my emotions as a habit I am building overtime. This means the more I practise identifying how I feel in a given moment, the better I hope to get at it. I also hope to get more granular with my labelling. I have found that being more precise and specific with how I feel is more calming and works better. If I recognize anxiety in me, I try to go beyond saying ‘I feel anxious’. I try to say how anxious I feel on a scale of 1–10. I also hope to get more descriptive with my labelling. This means two things. One, I am curious to notice how an emotion manifests itself physiologically in me. When thinking of anxiety, do I feel it in my gut? Can I describe how it shows up in my body? Two, I want to be able to identify multiple emotions that I may be feeling in a moment and unpack them. Do I feel a strange concoction of anxiety and sadness? How intense are these emotions? How different is it from anxiety or sadness alone? I am eager to find out if being more descriptive makes labelling more effective. Hoping to explore more interesting research in this domain. And hoping to stay curious about how I feel.
That’s all for now. If you have read this far (thanks for reading!), perhaps you have experiences or thoughts related to affect labelling. Do share them in the comments.