Name That Emotion

After I wrote that last page I ran this little conversation through my head:

Reader: “That is all well and good for you to say, but I am not going to go looking for those negative emotions to label. Better let sleeping dogs lie! Rile those things up and you never know what will happen. You cannot help bad feelings by talking about them.”

Sue: “Wrongo, Bucko! That is exactly how it is done!”

There is some very cool research being done on something called affect labeling. At UCLA they are finding the simple act of putting a name to a troubling emotion decreases that emotion. Cool, huh?

Now comes the neuroscience. Bear with me.

There is a part of your ‘old brain’ called the amygdala. The amygdala has some very important jobs. It controls fight, flight or freeze. These are reactions to danger; right? Really important for keeping the organism (‘organism’ because lots of animals have amydgalas) alive. You need an amygdala.

The problem comes when your amygdala gets out of sorts and keeps reacting to things that are either not necessarily dangerous or, like AMD, do not have fight, flight or freeze as the answer. If this were a multiple choice quiz, the proper answer for how to handle AMD would be “none of the above”.

Even though fight, flight or freeze are not correct reactions to the threat and fear of AMD, the amygdala is still revving you up for battle or a sprint or a game of hide and seek with a predator. It is sending out all sorts of alarm signals to your body and your body is getting prepared.

Which leads us to another problem. Many of the chemicals your body sends out are not meant to be produced over the long-term. Long-term production of these chemicals can do you a lot of harm. However, the threat and stress of a chronic condition happen everyday. Conundrum.

So, now the way labeling emotions can help lower negative feelings: labeling emotions seems to be a task of the right ventrolateral region of your brain. It is behind the right side of your forehead and your right eye. Mindfulness meditation causes the right ventrolateral region to bulk up. The theory is all the noticing and labeling done in mindfulness is what is causing the growth.

But even better, when people with an overactive amygdala name their emotions, the right ventrolateral region lights up and the amygdala calms down! Even, even better, a buff right ventrolateral region keeps the amygdala calmer just whenever.

Maybe that is why people who meditate seem so calm and serene to us mere mortals. They have right ventrolateral regions with ‘six packs’.

Remember all those stories in which the hero magically gained control over something by calling it by its true name? Turns out not to be fiction. With the naming of emotions, it is fact. Go ahead and try it. Use a little true name ‘magic’ on your negative emotions.

Next: name that emotion, the prequel

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