Labeling Your Thoughts And Feelings: Neuroscience And Mindfulness
Putting both your feelings into words and mindful meditation together is a powerful way to regulate your emotions in a positive way. Why is putting our feelings into words beneficial? A brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists provides the answer.
Verbalizing our negative feelings makes excessive or persistent sadness, anger, and pain less intense. In another study by the same researchers, with the same participants, combined modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction – provides positive benefits as well.
In the experiments, when the participants saw a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they experienced increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger (ie., the fight or flight response). The researchers saw a robust amygdala response even when they showed such emotional photographs to the subjects subliminally.
According to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience, seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face changes our brain response. “When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science. His study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex which has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. This area of the brain has also known for inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.
“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions – labeling emotions – that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.
Many people wonder why putting their feelings into words is helpful. “If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response. “When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said.
“In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.” As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad. This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said. “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.”
Combining Buddhist Teachings and Modern Neuroscience
Mindfulness meditation, which originates in Buddhist practice, is now very popular in the west. Mindfulness meditation is an activity during which one pays attention to his or her present emotions, thoughts and body sensations, such as breathing, without passing judgment or reacting. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the earliest researchers and promoters of mindfulness mediation describes the process as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
“One way to practice mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I’m feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said David Creswell, a research scientist with the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. He undertook a study to examine the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain and emotions and published his results in Psychosomatic Medicine, a leading international medical journal for health psychology research.
Previous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, skin disease, stress-related health conditions and a variety of other ailments. Creswell and his UCLA colleagues found that during the labeling of emotions, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated, which seems to turn down activity in the amygdala. They then compared participants’ responses on the mindfulness questionnaire with the results of the labeling study.
“We found the more mindful you are, the more activation you have in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the less activation you have in the amygdala,” Creswell said. “We also saw activation in widespread centers of the prefrontal cortex for people who are high in mindfulness. This suggests people who are more mindful bring all sorts of prefrontal resources to turn down the amygdala. These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation, he says, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health.
Creswell says “Now, for the first time since those teachings, we have shown there is actually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness meditation. Our findings are consistent with what mindfulness meditation teachers have taught for thousands of years.”
Mindful Noticing and Labeling
A fundamental part of mindfulness meditation is the process of noticing and labeling. The objective is to observe our mental and emotional activity as it is occurring in the present time. We notice what’s happening in our mind as an observer, rather than engaging intently with the contents. Instead of being lost in thought or ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, we remain present to what exists at the moment.
We simply observe what is in our mind, noticing the words of the thought(s), the intensity of the feeling(s), the location in our body of the sensation(s) without engaging with them. When we notice and observe, we can then label our thoughts and feelings. We can say out loud, or silently to ourselves something like the following, “Oh that’s interesting, that thought (feeling) is coming up” without judgment and then return to the present moment. We can increase the noticing by giving the thought, emotion or sensation a label.
Labeling can be done formally as a part of a meditation sitting practice or informally throughout the day. The purpose of this activity is to be more aware of and notice our habitual thought patterns and to get a more objective perspective. In this way, we can break the cycle of rumination or excessive focus on negative thoughts and feelings. As neuroscience research has shown, when we are practicing noticing and labeling, we are re-wiring our brain. Instead of automatically engaging or contending with the thought or feeling, we’re creating a space between our self and our thought. This allows us to choose and respond rather than react.
In this way, we are less at the mercy of our default mode of our reactive brain which can get stuck in unhelpful rumination and preoccupation. When we become more aware and stay in the present moment we can begin to live in a more conscious and intentional way.
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