Labeling Your Thoughts and Feelings Using Neuroscience and Mindfulness

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Putting your feelings into words, and mindful meditation together are 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 which appears in the journal Psychological Science, may give us the

answer. Verbalizing our negative feelings makes excessive or persistent sadness, anger and pain less intense. In another study by these researchers they provided neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — defined as 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 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. 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.

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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 research has shown 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 concluded that when individuals label emotions, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated, which seems to turn down activity in the amygdala.

Cresswell and colleagues 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 and an increased capacity to turn down the amygdala.”

“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.”

In a recent study from Dr. Michelle Craske‘s lab at UCLA, the researchers recruited participants who had a spider phobia. Participants wereassigned to one of four experimental conditions that differed in their instructions for what to do with the anxiety: 1) label the anxiety felt about the spider, 2) think differently of the spider so that it feels less threatening (reappraisal), 3) distract from the anxiety elicited by the spider, 4) no specific instruction (control condition). Participants then came back for a second session so that the investigators could test the long-term effects of their emotion manipulation.

The researchers found that participants who had been assigned to labeling their emotions had lower physiological reactivity to the spiders, as indexed by fewer skin conductance responses. In addition, the authors found that within the affect labeling condition, participants who verbalized a larger number of fear and anxiety words had even fewer skin conductance responses!

These findings suggest that having greater emotional clarity about one’s fear can help reduce the physiological manifestation of this emotion.

Mindful Noticing and Labeling

In mindfulness noticing and labeling, the objective is to stand back, to observe our mental activity by using our attention to track our thoughts moment by moment, becoming interested in our thinking as well as feelings and sensations. We step back, we notice as an observer, without taking ownership of the content of our mind. Instead of being lost in thought, ruminating over past or future events, we wake up being present to what is here in the moment. We simply observe what is in our mind, noticing the wording of the thought(s), the intensity of the feeling(s), the location in our body of the sensation(s) without engaging with it.

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When we turn our attention to our mind, we can begin to notice specific mental activity such as a specific thought, emotion or physical sensation saying something like: “I see you”, “Isn’t interesting that this is coming up!”, without judgment and then return to the present moment, coming into our body, to some point of focus which can be the sensation of breathing or the feet touching the ground. We can also 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. Labeling can also be done at the beginning of a meditation to settle the mind and subsequently in daily activities.

The aim here is to examine our habitual thought patterns, to take a step back, to get some perspective. In this way, we can break the cycle of rumination. It is simple and a great practice for the beginner as well as the advanced practitioner.

During a meditation, we choose a point of focus such as the awareness of the breath, or the footstep as in mindful walking and when our mind wanders, we kindly notice the “mental activity”, giving it a label and then coming back paying attention to being present with our chosen point of focus. We simply notice that the mind has wandered and that this was the content of the thought…with curiosity and kindness, without evaluating or analyzing the thought. We can use a general “action-verb” label, saying in our mind or aloud(if we are alone) “thinking” or specific label such as “planning”, “criticizing” or if we are distracted by a sound we can say “hearing” and then come back to whatever we had chosen to be an anchor for our attention. We can also name what we are observing using a general “noun” such “sensation” (tingling, aching, warm), “thought”( words, image, memory), “urge”( desire impulse) or “emotion” or “feeling” or “sound”. You can further increase the acceptance by saying something like “yes, I see you there”, “yes to whatever is here”.

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It is also important not to spend too much time thinking about the kind of label you wish to use, remembering that the aim is simply to observe, to be aware, to be present. It is okay to use either vague or specific label, as long as you keep it simple and easy.

You will become aware that the labeling is often after the fact or in hindsight. That is okay, that is just the nature of the mind. Also, you don’t have to label everything, just what you become aware of every so often. And it is okay to label the same thing over and over again if it is what is there for you. We encourage you to experiment with it and make it your own way.

We can also choose to specifically name the emotion such as “stress”, “anger”, “fear”, “joy”, “calm”. When we note and label, we can use a friendly and gentle tone which add a strengthening quality of compassion to our inner chatter. We can also choose to talk to our self in the third person. You can talk to yourself as a friend saying: “Tom you are feeling angry today” or observing yourself as a detached observer: “Tom is feeling angry today” or “Marie is thinking that she is not doing enough practice”. As a friend, you can say: “Bev, you have a pain in your back” and further observer: “Bev is having a pain in the back”. Labeling as a friend in this way can give us a sense of being seen and understood. In addition, it creates a distance between what is happening and ourselves to reduce our reactivity. We don’t take it so personally. We don’t have to take ownership or authorship of it: “it is not your fault”, “you are not your fault”. This often helps to be more tolerating and accepting of our difficult feelings. We invite you to experiment, choosing whatever feels better for you.

The noticing and labeling practices assist in gaining clarity as to “what is” in the present moment. It helps us to gain some insight into our relationship with ourselves, with our experiences, with others and with our environment. Usually when we have “a thought”, we engage with it automatically, fusing with it. As we know, some thoughts can be very sticky, making it difficult to step back. With mindfulness, we practice gently pulling away from thoughts, again and again, pausing, observing, creating more and more space between the “mental event” and the response.

Each time, in the moment, when we are practising noting and labeling, we are re-wiring the brain, because we are doing something different than what we would normally do. Each time we are noting and labeling, we are disengaging from the default mode network. Instead of automatically engaging with the thought, we are stepping out of thought, creating a space between our self and our thought, allowing for choosing and responding rather than reacting, becoming the wise observer of our mind. In this way, we are less at the mercy of our default mode which can get stuck in unhelpful rumination and preoccupation. When we become more aware, we wake up and free ourselves from our conditioning, we begin to live in a more conscious and intentional way.

The benefits of this technique are numerous. We stay with what is there for us, easing the resistance. It helps us to manage our emotions by breaking the experience into different manageable parts such as a thought, emotion and physical sensation. It promotes acceptance and reduces reactivity. We notice without immediate identification, making space, cultivating equanimity.

Research in neuroscience has shown that the labeling of thought helps to regulate emotion and promote insight during times of stress and emotional upset. Labeling with kindness is very beneficial as it slows the thinking mind, creating a space in our mind, where we can step back and observe. This has the effect also of calming the stress reaction in our body and not getting caught in the intensity of the emotion.

Research has shown that mental noticing and labeling help us to improve the emotional wiring in our brains. It produces a relaxing effect in our body, which helps us detach from thoughts. We stop identifying so personally with our thoughts and reacting emotionally to them. Rather than getting caught up in our thoughts, we train our minds to notice and label. Then we have more choice in terms of which thoughts we can intentionally pay attention to. By riding the rumination or emotion with our attention, through noting and labeling, we can free ourselves from excessive preoccupation or reactivity, becoming calmer, being more able to turn to the good things in our lives.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Written by

Executive Coach/Author/Professional Speaker. President, Ray Williams Associates

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