A trick for managing difficult emotions

For as long as I can remember, September has brought with it a mixture of excitement and trepidation: a lingering memory of childhood milestones (new classes, new teachers, new pencil cases) combined with a sense of the year moving into a different phase. This year I’ve felt it more than ever, having just helped my eldest son move away to college. I’m two parts joyous, one part bereft, which I guess is probably pretty much par for the course at a time like this.

It’s led me to reflect on how much I’ve learned about managing uncomfortable emotions over the last couple of years. After decades of rollercoastering between mood states, I’m finally much more able to let feelings be and not pick fights with them as they pass by. One of the most useful things I’ve learned is to name them – actually identify them in words – as a way of managing their intensity. It sounds bizarre but it is proven to work.

A number of studies, including this very recent one, have shown that simply naming uncomfortable feelings is enough to reduce activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain where emotional responses take place.

So if you ask me how I am and I happen to mention that I’m feeling a bit lost, now that my son (who was a toddler only a couple of years ago, I’m sure) isn’t around so much, don’t worry. Just naming the lostness will help me feel it a little less.

So I’m curious…do you have techniques to help you manage difficult emotions?

What works for you?

For those who’d like more info about how this process, also known as ‘affect labelling’, works….

When you trigger a strong emotional response in someone (for example, by showing them a photograph of an angry face), an fMRI scan of their brain will show their amygdala light up. The effect is instantaneous, prompting a flurry of biological responses designed to protect them from danger. However, when the person describes what they are feeling using words, their amygdala quietens down and a different region of the brain (the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, responsible for discrimination and emotional processing) takes over.

In a nutshell: through using naming language we can help ourselves move from a state of overwhelming, visceral emotion to one where we are calmer and able to see things more objectively.