- Cameron M. Clark
When faced with difficult emotional situations, it can often be helpful to think about the problem or situation in a different way. In some sense this is obvious, but of course with all things obvious, the trick is in actually doing the obvious thing, not in just knowing that the obvious thing should be done.
Good examples abound. You haven't received your COVID vaccine yet, but several of your friends have - how frustrating! You bumped into another car while reversing out of your parking spot - how embarrassing! Your investments haven't been doing as well as you had been told they would - how sad (or maybe anxiety provoking?). While we can't control what happens to us, we do have some control over how we think about it.
Thinking about a problem in a different way is what research psychologists have called 'reappraisal' - which has been shown to be quite effective in helping to regulate our emotions. Reappraisal has two primary variations which will be familiar to anyone who has made efforts to think their way out of a difficult situation: 1) 'reinterpretation' - or altering the emotional impact of the problem or situation (e.g. "I'll receive my COVID vaccine soon enough", or "The important thing is that I stay healthy, not that I receive my vaccine before anyone else"); and 2) 'distancing' - or reevaluating the relevance of the problem or situation to you personally (e.g. "Friends and family are more important to me than my investments are anyway" or "Money is a means to an end, not an end in itself").
The problem with reappraisal as a strategy, is that it is a strategy - and strategies, as we know, require effort. However, recently psychologists have turned their attention to a process that requires less effort than emotional reappraisal, but achieves similar results: 'affect labelling' - or simply labelling the strong or aversive emotion that you are feeling, when you are feeling it. The research shows that simply giving strong emotions a label (e.g. "I feel frustrated" / "I feel embarrassed" / "I feel sad") has the effect of diminishing the intensity of that emotion in the moment.
What's surprising here is that affect labelling appears to accomplish similar results as more effortful attempts at emotional regulation via reappraisal despite not requiring conscious supervision, or explicit intention to alter your emotional state. In other words, simply giving your strong emotion a label appears to set your mind to the task of reducing the intensity of strong or negative emotions without further input or conscious work from you.
So, how does affect labelling work? While the science is far from complete on the topic, researchers have some hunches:
Distraction: it may be hard for our minds to both produce an emotion and label that emotion. From Lieberman et al. 2018 "requiring application of language to an evocative stimulus momentarily distracts us from fully processing and engaging the stimulus as we would otherwise, thus resulting in diminished effects."
Self-Reflection: affect labelling may force greater insight into the inner workings of our mind: "To put our feelings into words, we must first identify what those feelings are, requiring a degree of self-reflection."
Reduction of Uncertainty: Labels may provide a degree of certainty: "Emotions can often be nebulous states. By applying a label to those states, or even to evocative but ambiguous stimuli, we may be reducing the uncertainty about them by categorizing them."
However affect labelling does it's work, it is a powerful tool that you can now add to your psychological toolbox. The next time you experience a strong negative emotion, slap a label on it and see what happens.
This week's sharpthinking question is:
If you met someone exactly like yourself, with the same interests, experiences, and problems - what advice might you give them?