Many of us worry that emotions are a one-way street. We fear that, if we allow ourselves feel, we might get "stuck" in an emotion and be unable return. Though it may seem counterintuitive, studies show that putting emotions into words (also called affect labeling) makes us feel better. This shows that the way to move beyond an unwelcome emotion is to feel and express it.

In fact, the more specifically you can express your emotions, the better. 

The studies below, along with your Mixed Emotions cards, can provide inspiration and a tool to help you feel your emotions, name them, and experience relief.

Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy


A growing body of research has revealed that labeling an emotion, or putting one’s feelings into words, can help to downregulate that affect, as occurs with intentional forms of emotion regulation, such as reappraisal and distraction. We translated this basic research to a real-world clinical context, in which spider-fearful individuals were repeatedly exposed to a live spider. Using a between-subjects design, we compared the effects of affect labeling, reappraisal, distraction from the feared stimulus, and exposure alone during this brief course of exposure therapy on subsequent fear responding. At a 1-week posttest involving a different spider in another context, the affect-labeling group exhibited reduced skin conductance response relative to the other groups and marginally greater approach behavior than the distraction group; however, the affect-labeling group did not differ from the other groups in self-reported fear. Additionally, greater use of anxiety and fear words during exposure was associated with greater reductions in fear responding. Thus, perhaps surprisingly, affect labeling may help to regulate aspects of emotion in a clinical context.

Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Michelle G. Craske
First Published in "Psychological Science" August 16, 2012
© 2012 Kircanski, Lieberman, and Craske

Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli


Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences; however, the mechanisms by which affect labeling produces this benefit remain largely unknown. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest a possible neurocognitive pathway for this process, but methodological limitations of previous studies have prevented strong inferences from being drawn. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of affect labeling was conducted to remedy these limitations. The results indicated that affect labeling, relative to other forms of encoding, diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. Additionally, affect labeling produced increased activity in a single brain region, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Finally, RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labeling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediated by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity along a pathway from RVLPFC to MPFC to the amygdala.

Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way
First Published in "Psychological Science" May 1, 2007
© 2007 Association for Psychological Science


Although multiple neuroimaging studies suggest that affect labeling (i.e., putting feelings into words) can dampen affect-related responses in the amygdala, the consequences of affect labeling have not been examined in other channels of emotional responding. We conducted four studies examining the effect of affect labeling on self-reported emotional experience. In study one, self-reported distress was lower during affect labeling, compared to passive watching, of negative emotional pictures. Studies two and three added reappraisal and distraction conditions, respectively. Affect labeling showed similar effects on self-reported distress as both of these intentional emotion regulation strategies. In each of the first three studies, however, participant predictions about the effects of affect labeling suggest that unlike reappraisal and distraction, people do not believe affect labeling to be an effective emotion regulation strategy. Even after having the experience of affect labels leading to lower distress, participants still predicted that affect labeling would increase distress in the future. Thus, affect labeling is best described as an incidental emotion regulation process. Finally, study four employed positive emotional pictures and here, affect labeling was associated with diminished self-reported pleasure, relative to passive watching. This suggests that affect labeling tends to dampen affective responses in general, rather than specifically alleviating negative affect.

Matthew D. Lieberman, Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia, and Molly J. Crockett
First published in "Emotion" on May 2, 2011
© 2011 American Psychological Association

Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity


Being able to carefully perceive and distinguish the rich complexity in emotional experiences is a key component of psychological interventions. We review research in clinical, social, and health psychology that offers insights into the adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity (i.e., emotion differentiation or emotional granularity). According to recent research, upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders. These findings shed light on how negative emotions and stressful experiences can be transformed by people’s emotion-differentiation skill. Besides basic research suggesting that emotion differentiation is an important developmental process, evidence suggests that interventions designed to improve emotion differentiation can both reduce psychological problems and increase various strands of well-being

Todd B. Kashdan, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Patrick E. McKnight
First Published in "Psychological Science" on February 18, 2015
© 2014 Kashdan, Feldman Barrett, and McKnight

The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults


Emotion regulation is commonly characterized as involving conscious and intentional attempts to change felt emotions, such as, for example, through reappraisal whereby one intentionally decreases the intensity of one's emotional response to a particular stimulus or situation by reinterpreting it in a less threatening way. However, there is growing evidence and appreciation that some types of emotion regulation are unintentional or incidental, meaning that affective modulation is a consequence but not an explicit goal. For example, affect labeling involves simply verbally labeling the emotional content of an external stimulus or one's own affective responses without an intentional goal of altering emotional responses, yet has been associated with reduced affective responses at the neural and experiential levels. Although both intentional and incidental emotional regulation strategies have been associated with diminished limbic responses and self-reported distress, little previous research has directly compared their underlying neural mechanisms. In this study, we examined the extent to which incidental and intentional emotion regulation, namely, affect labeling and reappraisal, produced common and divergent neural and self-report responses to aversive images relative to an observe-only control condition in a sample of healthy older adults (N = 39). Affect labeling and reappraisal produced common activations in several prefrontal regulatory regions, with affect labeling producing stronger responses in direct comparisons. Affect labeling and reappraisal were also associated with similar decreases in amygdala activity. Finally, affect labeling and reappraisal were associated with correlated reductions in self-reported distress. Together these results point to common neurocognitive mechanisms involved in affect labeling and reappraisal, supporting the idea that intentional and incidental emotion regulation may utilize overlapping neural processes.

Lisa J. Burklund, J. David Creswell, Michael R. Irwin, and Matthew D. Lieberman
First published in "Frontiers in Psychology" on March 24 2014
Copyright © 2014 Burklund, Creswell, Irwin, and Lieberman

Affect labeling enhances exposure effectiveness for public speaking anxiety


Exposure is an effective treatment for anxiety but many patients do not respond fully. Affect labeling (labeling emotional experience) attenuates emotional responding. The current project examined whether affect labeling enhances exposure effectiveness in participants with public speaking anxiety. Participants were randomized to exposure with or without affect labeling. Physiological arousal and self-reported fear were assessed before and after exposure and compared between groups. Consistent with hypotheses, participants assigned to Affect Labeling, especially those who used more labels during exposure, showed greater reduction in physiological activation than Control participants. No effect was found for self-report measures. Also, greater emotion regulation deficits at baseline predicted more benefit in physiological arousal from exposure combined with affect labeling than exposure alone. The current research provides evidence that behavioral strategies that target prefrontal-amygdala circuitry can improve treatment effectiveness for anxiety and these effects are particularly pronounced for patients with the greatest deficits in emotion regulation.

Andrea N. Niles, Michelle G. Craske, Matthew D. Lieberman, Christopher Hur
First published in "Behavior Research and Therapy" on March 11, 2015
© 2015 Niles, Craske, Lieberman, and Hur

The physical and psychological health benefits of positive emotional writing


Type D personality is associated with psychological and physical ill‐health. However, there has been limited investigation of the role of Type D personality in interventions designed to enhance well‐being. This study investigated associations between Type D personality and the efficacy of positive emotional writing for reducing stress, anxiety, and physical symptoms.

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom


Two laboratory and two randomized field experiments tested a psychological intervention designed to improve students' scores on high-stakes exams and to increase our understanding of why pressure-filled exam situations undermine some students' performance. We expected that sitting for an important exam leads to worries about the situation and its consequences that undermine test performance. We tested whether having students write down their thoughts about an upcoming test could improve test performance. The intervention, a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before taking an important test, significantly improved students' exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test taking. Simply writing about one's worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.

Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock, first published in the journal Science in January 14, 2011