When we’re having a bad day, conventional tribal knowledge tells us to try not to bottle up our feelings and to find someone who can help us talk through it. In fact, we know that having someone to talk to actually decreases the aging of the brain; but for some people, talking about emotions doesn’t come easily or a support network isn’t always available. A recent study explains what the process of describing emotional responses is actually doing and recommends ways to make it more accessible for those who can’t readily verbalize their feelings.
The brain is a complicated part of the human body and is performing largely out of our control on a subconscious level. That’s great if you’re tackling cognitive performance, but not so great when it’s reacting to a stressful meeting the same way it would react to a threatening snake! A large part of the reactions and emotional reactions we have are still based on just one thing: survival.
In a study at UCLA, researchers found that naming an emotion successfully de-escalated the survival response that is triggered by seeing an angry face. When participants are shown pictures of strangers that are displaying negative emotions, the amygdala region in the brain is activated in order to prepare to protect ourselves and launch us into fight or flight situations. Think you’re able to control this better than others? You may be surprised to know that this activation occurs even when images are shown so fast that participants can’t see them (subliminally).
What did change the response and activation of the amygdala in the brain was naming the emotion that was shown in the photo. It wasn’t helpful to assign a person’s name to the photo but describing aloud the emotion seen (like “angry”) toned down the activation of the amygdala. When verbalizing the emotion, a different part of the brain became more active and the participants didn’t have the same emotional reaction as before.
It’s the same phenomenon that happens when people journal, so you can use that if that’s what’s available; or if you’re on the opposite end and you’re trying to listen to someone work through emotions, it’s similar to the active listening technique of mirroring. Overcoming our basest instincts is a struggle, but with mindfulness and understanding of what’s going on in the brain, it’s just a little bit easier.