When Labeling an Emotion Quiets It

by Tom Valeo

September, 2013

Emotions, like the weather, seem to just happen to us. We might complain when they disrupt our lives, but there’s not much we can do about them.

Or is there?

Brain imaging now supports what psychotherapists, writers, and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza have observed: Simply recognizing and naming an emotion quells its effect, making thoughtful management of subsequent behavior more likely. Psychotherapists employ this phenomenon when treating patients. Writers who turn their attention on themselves often discover it. And in his Ethics, Spinoza observed that “An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.” At that point, Spinoza observed, the mind becomes less submissive to the emotion, and can exercise greater control over it.

Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, has bestowed the name “affect labeling” on the process of forming “a clear and distinct idea” of an emotion. He became intrigued by its power years ago after learning about the work of James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who has conducted many experiments suggesting that people who write about traumatic or intensely emotional experiences—the death of a sibling, for example, or the divorce of one’s parents—with the aim of increasing their understanding show improvements in objective measures of health, such as immune function.

Using brain imaging, Lieberman and his colleagues have provided some insight into the neural basis of affect labeling. When people in an fMRI machine are shown photos of faces expressing strong emotion, for example, their brain signals show greater activity in the amygdala, which is involved in generating emotions, especially fear. When asked to label the emotion, however, the subjects show less activity in the amygdala, and greater activity in a region of the right frontal lobe known as the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rvlPFC), a region involved in vigilance and discrimination. In effect, assessing and naming an emotion seems to transform the emotion into an object of scrutiny, thereby disrupting its raw intensity. Control subjects, asked merely to identify the gender of the people in the photos rather than the emotion being expressed, did not show the same reduction in amygdala activity. (see references below12)

Now Lieberman and his colleagues are investigating how affect labeling might translate into methods to improve a person’s mental health.

“I think affect labeling is more aligned with a new therapy called acceptance commitment therapy, which kind of comes out of mindfulness literature,” said Lieberman, author of a new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. “You acknowledge that you’re feeling anxiety, but you don’t get stressed about it. The theory is that our basic emotional responses are fine, but we get into trouble mostly because of how we get wrapped up in those emotional responses and make things worse.” Acceptance commitment therapy, in contrast, encourages people to identify an emotion—to say, for example, “I’m angry now”—without indulging or justifying the emotion.

While still a grad student, David Creswell wanted to explore the relationship between mindfulness and affect labeling, so he persuaded Lieberman to have the subjects in one experiment fill out a questionnaire designed to measure their mindfulness by rating themselves on such statements such as, “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention,” and “I snack without being aware that I’m eating.” fMRI scans showed that those who scored higher in self-reported mindfulness displayed a stronger frontal-lobe response while engaging in affect labeling. (3)

Based on these and other findings, Creswell, now an associate professor in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks that talk therapy probably produces benefits, in part, by encouraging people to engage in affect labeling. “People label feelings, and this facilitates emotional regulation in the brain,” he said.

Mindfulness meditation, he added, appears to promote the same process. “You monitor your experience moment by moment,” Creswell said of this type of meditation. “That might involve paying attention to your breath, or a more general type of open monitoring. You notice experience as it happens. If you feel anger rising, for example, you simply note it. Through these labeling practices you’re teaching emotion regulation via affect labeling. We find that mindful individuals show better recruitment of prefrontal regions during affect labeling, and greater deactivation of the amygdala. So the more mindful you are the better able you are to turn on this affect regulation circuit.”

Creswell’s latest work attempts to link mindfulness training to improvements in emotional regulation. In research reported in NeuroImage: Clinical, 26 subjects diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder showed significant improvement after eight weeks of “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction,” a combination of mindfulness meditation and yoga developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. “Eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training seems to help the brain recruit the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during an affect labeling task,” Creswell said. (4)

In addition to community mindfulness meditation groups, many online resources, including Kabat-Zinn’s, now offer an introduction to mindfulness training, Creswell said. One online program,  Shinzen.org, offers phone-in classes for a nominal fee, and Creswell himself has served on the board of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, which offers audio links to free guided meditations.

Mindfulness meditation and expressive writing overlap, according to Creswell, in that both incorporate affect labeling. Writing uses a pen while mindfulness meditation uses the breath as an anchor, but both insert a little space between the emotion and the behavior that follows—“a space where you can ask, How do I want to respond to this situation?” he said.

Andrea N. Niles, a graduate student at UCLA, recently published a paper providing evidence that people who are more emotionally expressive derive greater health benefits from writing about stressful or traumatic experiences. She asked 116 subjects to fill out questionnaires containing questions such as, “When I’m angry people around me usually know,” and “People can tell from my facial expressions how I’m feeling.” They would rate themselves on a scale of 1-7, and the average was used as an indicator of emotional expressiveness.

Assessments showed that the most emotionally expressive subjects reported a decrease in anxiety when they wrote about difficult experiences. However, those low in emotional expressivity showed an increase in anxiety, suggesting that perhaps they  should avoid engaging in expressive writing. (5)

Other studies, however, have suggested the opposite—that people who do not normally express emotions benefit more from expressive writing, perhaps because it provides a safe way to explore their emotions.

So which is it? In an attempt to provide an answer, Joshua M. Smyth, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, teamed up with James Pennebaker to review more than 200 studies of expressive writing that have been conducted in the past 20 years. They admit it’s hard to determine from the studies whether expressive writing is more effective or less effective depending on how easily the writer expresses emotion. (6)

Overall, however, expressive writing clearly benefits a wide range of people, according to Smyth and Pennebaker. “The very thing that we have not been able to confidently identify is what makes this intervention so promising as an intervention,” they write in their paper. “Whatever the underlying mechanisms may be, the writing technique is extremely malleable to differing situations, circumstances, participant conditions, and people.”

Rendering personal experiences as a narrative seems particularly beneficial, said Smyth, co-author, with psychology professor Stephen J. Lepore, of The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being.

“We had people write in an explicitly narrative way, in which they tried to make sense of things, and we compared them to people who made only bulleted statements about their experiences,” said Smyth. “The writing was not helpful at all to the latter group.

In fact, simply venting strong emotion, with no reflection or processing, appears to make people feel worse. “Progress results when the writer moves from an unstructured format in which the elements are disjointed, to a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end—a traditional story-telling structure,” Smyth said. “I think a vital component is narrative coherence.”

Affect labeling also appears effective at relieving specific anxiety symptoms, such as spider phobia, suggests a recent paper by Katharina Kircanski, a former student of Lieberman. Gradually increasing exposure to spiders has long been used to desensitize arachnophobics to their fear, but talking explicitly about one’s fearful thoughts and feelings appears to enhance the effect, said Kircanski, perhaps because the rvlPFC mutes the fear and anxiety generated by the amygdala, as Lieberman has shown. (7)

“We’ve also been talking about parallels between our findings and mindfulness,” said Kircanski, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University. “We think affect labeling may be like mindfulness in that it helps people notice and experience their feelings without trying to push them away, which can create more distress.”

Research into affect labeling continues. Salvatore J. Torrisi, for example, recently used dynamic causal modeling (DCM)—a special kind of fMRI analysis—to identify influences between the rvlPFC and the amygdala on the right side of the brain, and the language area on the left side of the brain known as Broca’s area. (8)

“We found that Broca’s area and the rvlPFC together form a part of a functional network that dampens amygdala activity during affect labeling,” Torrisi said. He also sees a relationship between affect labeling and the practice of “noting” in vipassana meditation, which promotes conscious emotional regulation.

“You can train yourself to make an implicit process more explicit,” he said. “For example, when you note a thought or an emotion you put a label on it. That’s part of vipassana meditation, and very much like the kind of affect labeling we study in the laboratory.”



1. Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way. Psychological Science 2007;18(5):421-428.

2. Subjective Responses to Emotional Stimuli During Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction. Matthew D. Lieberman, Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia, and Molly J. Crockett. Emotion 2011;11(3):468-480.

3. Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling. J. David Creswell, Baldwin M. Way, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Matthew D. Lieberman. Psychosomatic Medicine 2007;69(6):560-565. https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.scn.ucla.edu%2Fpdf%2FCreswell2007.pdf

4. Neural Mechanisms of Symptom Improvements in Generalized Anxiety Disorder Following Mindfulness Training. Britta K. Hölzel, Elizabeth A. Hoge, Douglas N. Greve, Tim Gard, J. David Creswell, Kirk Warren Brown, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Carl Schwartz, Dieter Vaitl, Sara W. Lazar. NeuroImage: Clinical 2013;2:448-458.

5. Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: the moderating role of emotional expressivity. Andrea N. Niles, Kate E. Haltom, Catherine M. Mulvenna, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Annette L. Stanton. Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal 2013 June 6, epub ahead of print.

6. Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. Joshua M. Smyth and James W. Pennebaker. British Journal of Health Psychology 2008;13(Pt. 1):1–7.

7. Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Michelle G. Craske. Psychological Science 2012;23(10):1086-1091.

8. Advancing understanding of affect labeling with dynamic causal modeling. Salvatore J. Torrisi, Matthew D. Lieberman, Susan Y. Bookheimer, and Lori L. Altshuler. NeuroImage 2013;82:481-488.