Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli

Putting Feelings into Words.  Many of us have been taught that showing emotion in the workplace is a negative quality and something that should not be done or encouraged in others.  But the neuroscience research on the subject shows that the labeling of emotion by people can help to reduce emotional distress.

In two studies it was shown though fMRI analysis that that labeling helps to regulate emotion.  To demonstrate this in yourself you can try this…  Take a moment to think about a situation that made you angry.  What does it feel like? What happens when you’re angry?

By drawing attention to the word, it alters our brain activity as it relates to the experiencing of that emotion.

Researchers found in a  meta-study involving 386 studies that when individuals were prompted to label their emotions versus not being prompted, the brain started to process and regulate better those emotions.

The prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain were activated. These brain regions are responsible for retrieving concepts and elaborating on their meaning.  This means that merely seeing a word such as “anger,” “fear,” or “disgust” prior to viewing a negative image may cause your brain to start retrieving knowledge about specific emotions and to start categorizing what you’re feeling, putting your feelings of negativity into more specific words.

Therefore, it can be beneficial to help people to label their emotions as a mechanism for helping them to better process them.  Research supports the idea that when you label, it often results in rethinking and re-appraising the meaning of the initial emotion (e.g.  “maybe the new organizational change will not result in my job being eliminated, I know that my work has value…”).

For leaders, it is important to help people manage this process.  Work is not a therapy session, and no one is proposing that it be one.  The idea is to quickly and efficiently ask people to label what they are feeling in a certain situation.  Not to dive too deep into all the background that made them have this feeling.  The mere act of helping the label regulates, and in some instances works to help people to re-frame the situation.

Let’s not sweep emotions and feelings under the carpet and hide them away.  Help people to label and you will be supporting them to better regulate them.

Please also keep in mind, that without psychological safety, it will be difficult or impossible to get people to trust that they can truly express themselves.

Get the research

  1. Putting Feelings Into Words Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli
  2. The role of language in the experience and perception of emotion: a neuroimaging meta-analysis