What is Emotional Labeling?
Emotional labeling is a technique used by mental health professionals and other therapists to help clients process their emotions. Imagine a child who suddenly shows frustration after a friend takes his toy. The child might get angry, grab the toy and throw it across the room. Or he might run to the corner of the room and start crying, telling his mother he wants to go home. Often the child is unable to give a name to his feelings. In a way, the child is emotionally illiterate. Adults can struggle with the same issue. Poor emotional labeling is associated with deficits in emotional-regulation.
Emotional labeling–also known as “affect labeling”–teaches the client to describe a feeling in very definite terms. This changes how that feeling is processed by the brain. Studies out of UCLA show that labeling an emotion decreases activity in the amygdala (the brain’s fear center), while increasing activity in the right prefrontal lobe (the area involved in vigilance and discrimination). This technique seems to lessen emotional reactivity. It has also been shown to be useful in the treatment of certain phobias. Another UCLA study showed that test subjects who practiced emotional labeling had a lower physiological stress response when faced with their fear of spiders.
How Can Emotional Labeling Help Children?
In pediatric occupational therapy, we often use this method to help children with self-regulation issues by coaching parents to name the emotion their child is experiencing. Statements such as “you’re mad”, “you’re angry”, or “you’re frustrated” help a child associate a name with what he’s feeling while simultaneously validating those emotions. Sometimes therapists will pair the emotional label with a visual by mirroring the child’s facial expression with their own. All these techniques are meant to increase the child’s emotional vocabulary and give him healthy tools to process his feelings.
Mindfulness is also helpful in developing a habit of emotional labeling. It teaches you, or your child, to label the thoughts that take your mind away from your breathing and then come back to your breathing. Your brain gets into the habit of analyzing thoughts separately from the reactive emotion itself.
Here’s a list of useful groups of emotional labels to help with this process:
- Anger. Annoyed, mad, bitter, cross, disgusted, frustrated, fuming, irritated, ticked-off, worked-up.
- Sadness. Blue, discontent, discouraged, gloomy, guilty, heartbroken, disappointed, lonely, depressed, low, moping, left-out, embarrassed, lethargic, defeated, exhausted, hopeless, lazy, numb, passive, misunderstood, cheated, burdened.
- Happiness. Thrilled, amused, bright, cheerful, sunny, terrific, grateful, thankful, energetic, joyful, fabulous, active, alert, capable, confident, encouraged, accepted, loved, validated, appreciated, respected, supported.
- Aggressiveness. Angry, hostile, competitive, powerful, dominant, arrogant, cocky, strong, bold, courageous, overbearing.
- Fearful. Afraid, alarmed, worried, anxious, cautious, frightened, terrified, insecure, stuck, reserved, trapped, scared.
- Safe. Calm, comforted, content, relaxed, peaceful, composed, free, secure.
Other ways to increase emotional literacy:
These activities are designed for use with children but can easily be adapted for adults.
- Talk about other people’s emotions. Ask your child questions about what he observes, such as: “How do you think Jenny felt when she could not the math problem in front of the class?” or “Mary is crying because she can’t play at the park anymore. How do you think she feels, right now?”
- Read stories to your child. Turn picture and chapter books into opportunities to learn about other people’s emotions and how to label them. Discuss with your child how various character feel, or how they might feel if something else had happened to them.
- Help your child learn about the emotional expression in art. Select works of art that evoke strong emotions and have your child comment about them. Ask a lot of questions, to help him use his emotional vocabulary.
- Art projects or journal entries around emotions. Have your child explore emotions through colors, shapes or facial expressions. What colors invoke anger, fear, peace, happiness, etc.? How can shapes be used to express happiness or sadness? What does someone look like when angry or delighted?
Emotional literacy is an important component of self-regulation. It’s necessary for mental health, resilience and clear communication. Many children and adults struggle with their emotions partly because they cannot assign a clear label to what they feel. Emotional or affect labeling is an excellent technique to help increase emotional literacy.