I came across some fascinating research the other day that supports the intuitive insight that verbalising your feelings helps dissipate and make them less intense.
The brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists examined the effects of verbally labeling negative emotional images and showed that the amygdala, a region of the brain that serves as an emotional alarm system, was less active when subjects labeled the feelings engendered by the negative images. The study also found another region of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, was more active during emotion labelling. This region is located behind the forehead and is associated with inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.
According to the study's main author, Associate Professor Matthew D. Lieberman, "When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala... When you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses." Lieberman also suggests, "Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better."
To me, this is a life enhancing research result that backs up what we all intuitively know: talking with a therapist, a loved one, a good friend, or even writing in a journal, helps us cope with and overcome feelings such as anger, fear and pain. Conversely, holding our feelings in, not expressing them and not consciously acknowledging them gives them power and makes them more likely to overtake you.
We all have times when we experience negative life events and are overwhelmed by negative emoting. The cool thing is that you now know that by practicing self-awareness and consciously labeling your emotions, you'll shift the response in your brain. Additionally, you now have life enhancing research evidence to encourage you to verbalise your feelings and share them with supportive friends. Getting your feelings out in the open makes them less intense.
Another life enhancing and useful tool for coping with negative emoting is the NLP technique of 'meta-emoting'.
The word 'Meta' (from Greek: μετά = "after", "beyond", "with", "adjacent", "self"), is a prefix used to indicate a concept that is an abstraction of another concept. So for example, a meta-language is a language about languages. Meta-data is data about data. And meta-emotion is emotion about emotion.
According to wikipedia, "Meta-emotion refers to the emotional reactions to one's own emotions (second-order emotions about primary emotions). An example would be being angry (the primary emotion) and being afraid of one's anger (the meta-emotion)."
This is a very powerful concept. You can get yourself into all sorts of psychological and emotional strife if you don't track your meta-emoting and control it.
For example, if you get scared of something such as talking in front of people, then you get scared about being scared, you create a loop that feeds back on itself and amplifies the fearing. This is typically a recipe for inducing a phobia - fear about fear about fear...
On the other hand, if you choose a meta-emotion that is more resourceful and positive, you can easily transcend and transform primary emotions via your meta-emoting. In the example above, if instead of fearing the fear, you chose to find the fearing as humorous and entertaining, then you'd find that the meta-emotion magically changes the primary emoting of fearing into something more resourceful. It's hard to do full on fearing when you are laughing at the fear :-)
By bringing your emotions to consciousness, labeling them, then consciously deciding on what your outcome is and what meta-emoting you are going to do, you create amazingly generative responses to the 'negative' events that occur in your life. And that is very life enhancing!
For those who are interested, here's an insightful read at UrbanMonk.net that talks in detail about the effects of meta-emoting: Meta-Emotions - The Downward Spiral to Unhappiness and How to Avoid Them
Another thing I want to bring to your attention in discussing the importance of verbalising and sharing your emotions with others, is the notion of 'Celebrating Failure'. In NLP we make the distinction between content and process, and suggest that 'process' is often more important for control and change than is 'content'.
For most people, the word 'Celebration' evokes the notion of positivity, happiness and joy. However, from an NLP perspective we would say that this is the typical 'content' of celebrating.
The 'process' of celebrating on the other hand involves intense emotional responding, performance or sharing with others and stimulation. This process is normally applied to positive content. However, without realising it, many people apply the process of celebrating to negative content. They 'celebrate' failure, disaster and negativity.
So the thing I want to highlight, is to make sure that when you share and verbalise your feelings, you don't overdo it and transgress into celebrating failure. The idea is to express your feelings so that you alleviate them, not to amplify and celebrate them and make them an ongoing focus. Express them and let them go. Your life enhancing happiness and peace of mind depend on it.
The other thing that links to enhancing your life by expressing your feelings is the research from the field of Positive Psychology on 'savoring'.
Dr. Fred Bryant, Professor of Psychology, Loyola University, Chicago has studied the effects of savoring for the last 20 years. His recent book, Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, describes the numerous benefits of savoring and its links to happiness.
Savoring involves enjoying and appreciating the good moments and aspects of each and every day. It's about sharing and celebrating the positive. This includes reminiscing about past experiences, really savoring and amplifying what's happening in the present and building strong positive anticipations for future events.
Fred's research shows that people who strongly savor their lives in an ongoing way, report higher levels of joy and life satisfaction. These positive emotions then broaden and build across contexts helping to buffer against stress and negative emotional experiences.
In his book, Fred recommends a number of strategies for enhancing your life through savoring, and of them the following are incredibly aligned with this blog entry:
- Sharing - sharing the emotional experience of an event with others increases enjoyment of it.
- Journaling - Writing a daily journal in which you recall the day's positive events enhances the savoring experience.
- Awareness - Intentionally sharpening your awareness for an event by focusing on and verbalising the positive emotions enhances the experience.
So I hope you are now convinced of the usefulness and importance of becoming more conscious of your emotional experiencing, including both its negative and positive aspects, and of expressing your emotings appropriately. The wisdom of such 'mindfulness' practice is backed up by ancient esoteric traditions, such as yoga and buddhist philosophy. It's healthy and life enhancing.
With negative emoting, express it, share it and let it go. Become aware of and actively practice positive meta-emoting. And finally, savor and share every positive emotional experience that you can.
Get the most juice out of every moment of your life. It's your life, and you and those you care about will benefit immensely if you enhance your life through sharing and savoring.
positive smiles and great wishes,
Fred Bryant's Book on Savoring:
Excellent books on Positive Psychology: