Written By: Lauren Barris, LCSW-C
Ever wonder why “just talking” about your problems can sometimes make you feel significantly better? Ever notice how good it feels to “get it off your chest,” “get out of your head,” or “talk it out”? Ever wonder why we have so many phrases for the simple act of talking about our feelings, or why many people (and maybe you) spend time, energy, and money for a professional to help them do this? The answer to all of these questions is simple: it works. Humans figured out long ago that translating painful emotions into words helps relieve suffering, and many have been relying on this coping strategy ever since. If you are one of the skeptics, or if you are simply curious to know why this works, read on!
When we experience painful emotions, like anger, fear (anxiety), or sadness, our brain processes these in older parts of the brain such as the limbic/paralimbic regions and the amygdala. One of the tasks of these areas of the brain is to help us react to threats, and experiencing strong emotions often helps us do this quickly and effectively (think being faced by a bear in the woods - do you want to stand there logically weighing your pros and cons as it charges toward you, or do you want your fight/flight/freeze instincts to kick in and get you the heck out of there?). The problem arises when we are experiencing a powerful emotion, but don’t want to feel the urge to act on that emotion. Sitting with that emotional pain firing around in the back of our brain is not a pleasant experience, and when it is happening, we are often driven to react in some variant of those three ways I mentioned: fight, flight, or freeze. Sound familiar?
So, what can we do to move our emotions out of those regions of the brain? We can use our words! When we identify, label and describe the emotion, it forces other parts of our brain to come online, like the language processing centers and the prefrontal cortex - hello logic and reason, goodbye fight, flight, and freeze! Now of course nothing that happens in the human brain is ever that simple, but the really cool thing is that this actually works. If you were laying in an MRI machine, having a powerful emotion, and you started to write about, rate, or label that emotion, you (or your doctor) would be able to see your brain activity actually shifting from your emotional processing centers up into the prefrontal areas and language processing centers. When this happens, your experience of the raw emotion becomes less intense. We know this because scientists actually proved it! www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811902000514
So, the next time you notice an uncomfortably strong emotion that you would rather not be experiencing so intensely, try this out! You can start by simply putting words on the emotion in your mind (i.e. think to yourself: “I’m noticing that the feeling of anger is getting stronger”). For a stronger effect, try saying the words out loud or writing them down (writing and talking get extra points for demanding more brain functions, like speech production and fine motor coordination). And last but not least, instead of just venting (i.e. “I am SO angry that so-and-so did X, Y, and Z”) which may actually circle back to trigger the emotion processing centers and INCREASE your experience of the emotion, try describing the emotion with nonjudgmental, fact-based language, differentiating yourself from the emotion (i.e. “I’m noticing that I am beginning to feel somewhat sad, and that this feeling started increasing about an hour ago. I wonder what prompted this feeling…”).
Good luck & let us know how it goes!