Finding Words

June 2014

“Can’t complain, wouldn’t do any good if I did!” This seems to be the consensus of generations past who were less expressive about their emotional life.  In a way, this
sentiment has been reaffirmed by self-help books which explain that negative thinking attracts negativity into one’s life and that life is mostly in one’s perspective.  When these ideas are interpreted inflexibly this can become quite counterproductive.

​ com·plain (km-pln) 1. To express feelings of pain,
dissatisfaction, or resentment. 

Putting words to negative experiences and feelings reduces their emotional impact and allows for an individual to respond more reasonably.  This has been evidenced by the effectiveness of talk therapy on mood and behavior.  Neural imaging now gives us a better understanding, and some nice visuals, of this universal process.

Feelings such as anger, anxiety and fear increase activity in the amygdala (a sub-cortical/lower area of the brain) and can interfere with access to the prefrontal cortex  (a cortical/higher area of the brain) which is responsible for decision making, reasoning and planning.  In a study exploring factors influencing emotional response, photographs of angry and fearful faces are used to increase activity in the amygdala, as it would be activated by the actual experience of fear or anger.  The fMRI in fig. 2 illustrates that using words to describe an emotion reduces the neural impact, indicating a reduction in the physiological experience of the emotion.  On the left, healthy participants saw an angry or fearful face and matched it to a similar face.  On the right, healthy participants who labeled the facial expression (put words to the emotion) had significantly less activity in the aymgdala.  This study also found the reduced activity in the amygdala was accompanied with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (Harir, Bookheimer & Mazziotta, 2000).

​(Unfortunately I’ve had to remove the image due to copyrighting issues.  It can be viewed here  by clicking on the “view” button on the top right of the page and scrolling down to fig. 2)

​These findings give insight as to why intense emotion can cloud one’s judgement and how putting words to emotions reduces both the intensity of the emotion and the tendency to override otherwise good judgement with an “emotional decision.”  It is suspected that the ability to regulate emotion is strengthened when language and interpretation (of the left, higher region of the brain) are utilized to process the physical sensations we know as emotions (of the right, lower region of the brain)!  This is referred to as integration.

Challenge of the Month: Put words to your emotional experience the next time you are not having your best day. …yes, the oh-so taboo, complain.  Be flexible!  Yes, it is helpful to shift your mood by focusing on feelings of gratitude, identifying or visualizing goals and doing something fabulous to work toward those goals.   But this month, do not forget the power that comes from being aware of your emotional experience and finding the words to express it, process it and seek support. 

​Harir, A., R., Biikheimer,S., Y., & Mazzoitta, J., C. (2000).  Modulating emotional response:       effects of a neocortical network on the limbic system.  Neuroreport, 11, 43-48.