If, as children, we grew up in an environment in which we were subjected to severe stress over protracted periods of time the way in which our internal physiological systems would normally operate may be seriously compromised. Such long-lasting stress may be caused by various factors such as abuse or neglect.
In her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, the author, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains the theory that this kind of stress can adversely affect the area of the brain that she refers to as the interoceptive network.
What Is The Interoceptive Network?
This is a brain region which consists of:
- the prefrontal cortex
- the insula
- the striatum
- the cingulate
What Does The Interoceptive Network Do?
The interoceptive network functions to make us aware of our internal body state feelings, regulate bodily physiological purposes and keep the body in a state of homeostasis (homeostasis means a relatively stable internal physiology).
Chronic Stress, Homeostasis, The Mind-Body Effect And Physical Health:
Chronic stress during childhood can disrupt homeostasis by damaging the interoceptive network and reducing the amount of tissue it contains (literally shrinking it in physical size by a process of cellular atrophy)via the mind-body effect (the mind-body effect refers to the phenomenon whereby our feelings, beliefs, thoughts and attitudes may affect our internal biological functioning and, as a consequence, our actual physical health.
As described by Segerstrom (2006), prolonged stress leads to the body producing excessive amounts of the stress hormone known as cortisol and this, in turn, reduces cortisol’s ability to regulate the body’s inflammatory and immune responses Whilst a certain amount of inflammation is beneficial, when, due to chronic, severe stress, the inflammation process becomes dysregulated, it can result in the breakdown of healthy tissue and a diminution of the effectiveness of the immune system.
Chaotic families, Family Conflict And Repeated Criticism:
Feldman Barrett points out that it is not just unambiguous abuse and neglect that can lead to the kind of chronic stress which results in dysregulated inflammatory processes, weakened immunity and, subsequently, poor physical health but also by the stressful effect living in a chaotic environment can have on the child or the effect of living in a family in which there is a high level of conflict or in a family in which the child is frequently criticized over an extended period of time.
Also, Feldman Barrett states, children who are bullied at school may also develop problems related to inflammation and these problems can extend into their adult lives, thus also increasing their risk of developing both physical and psychiatric illnesses.
The Good News:
Whilst the above is, of course, concerning, Feldman Barrett also explains that individuals with high emotional intelligence who ‘categorize, label and understand‘ their emotions, according to research, may increase their chances of recovering both from stressful experiences and from physical diseases related to stress. And, this being the case, Feldman Barrett infers that individuals who are able to ‘categorize their interoceptive sensations as emotions’ may reduce their risk of problematic inflammation, thus also reducing their chances of ill health.
Research Into Benefits Of Labelling Emotions:
A study conducted by Lieberman et al. involved participants being shown photographs of angry faces whilst measuring brain activity.
It was found that when participants were exposed to these photographs there was an increase in activity in the region of the brain called the amygdala which is sometimes referred to as the brain’s alarm centre is it is activated when a threat is perceived. Indeed, this increased activity occurred even when the photographs were presented to the participants subliminally; this is not surprising as the amygdala evolved to warn us of potential danger as quickly as possible and acts on an unconscious level.
However, when the participants were exposed to the angry faces with the label ‘angry’ attached, the intensity of the amygdala’s reaction was reduced.
Furthermore, when the participants labelled the faces as angry activity in another part of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, increased and it has been hypothesized that this area of the brain helps to inhibit emotional responses.
Lieberman and his colleagues also found that practising mindfulness increases the activity of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and reduces activity in the amygdala.
Summary Of Some Of The Benefits Of Labelling Our Emotions:
- It reduces the unpleasant physiological arousal strong emotions induce
- It helps us to control our emotions
- It decreases emotional reactivity
- Individuals who dismiss, fail to acknowledge and suppress their emotions tend to have a poorer sense of well being
- Labelling emotions activates the part of the brain that controls negative feelings and stop them spiralling out of control.
- Labelling emotions helps to convert visceral feelings into a more concrete concept that can be analyzed and more rationally considered.
Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, Pan Books. 2017
Matthew D. Lieberman, et al. Putting Feelings Into Words. Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli University of California, Los Angeles
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)