Survivors of severe and protracted childhood trauma often find it difficult to control emotions in later life and these feelings can be very painful and overwhelming.
Such emotional dysregulation is likely to be particularly prominent if one, as a result of one’s childhood experiences, has gone on to develop devastating conditions such as borderline personality disorder or complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION AND THE BRAIN
We have also seen that when we experience intense waves of emotions, the prefrontal cortex (which helps us to think rationally) and Broca’s area (where speech is processed) can partially shut down, leaving us irrational and inarticulate.
However, according to Dr. Daniel Siegel, a straightforward technique we can employ to significantly diminish our emotion over-reactivity, help to restore us to a state of emotional equilibrium, think clearly, and help us to make sensible decisions is a method informally referred to as ‘name it to tame it’ or, more formally, as ‘affect labeling’.
NAME IT TO TAME IT (AFFECT LABELING)
This technique simply involves us, instead of, as it were, just feeling our feelings, also making a concerted effort to name and describe them. For example, in response to feeling intensely angry, we may tell ourselves: ‘I am feeling in a rage, my breathing has become fast and shallow and I can feel my heart.’ beating.’
The idea behind this is that, in so doing, the rational parts of our brain are re-engaged and the parts of our brain involved in generating intense emotions are dampened down.
Once we have named and described what we are feeling, it is then useful to try to ‘observe’ our emotions calmly without allowing ourselves to get caught up in them.
In other words, we need to acknowledge our emotions but, simultaneously, try to create a distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ so that they do not dominate and control our behavior.
At the same time, we can employ the use of breathing techniques to calm us and release us from the fight or flight state, thus reducing physiological symptoms such as fast heartbeat and hyperventilation.
RESEARCH THAT SUPPORTS THE THEORY THAT LABELING AND DESCRIBING FEELINGS HELPS US TO GAIN CONTROL OVER OUR EMOTIONAL REACTIVITY.
In one study, Lieberman (2007) refers to putting a name to our feelings as, as we have encountered above, ‘AFFECT LABELING.’ In the study, he and his colleagues found that by labeling emotions that emerged in response to negative emotional images:
- activity in the amygdala and other regions of the brain’s limbic system was reduced by labeling emotions
- activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex increased as a result of labeling emotions.
Another study, conducted by Creswell et al.,(2007) suggests that one way in which mindfulness meditation helps to calm us is by improving the prefrontal cortex’s ability to regulate (control) our emotions by labeling negative affective stimuli.
- Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Matthew D. Liebe rman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way. Psychological Science 2007;18(5):421-428.
- Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling. J. David Creswell, Baldwin M. Way, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Matthew D. Lieberman. Psychosomatic Medicine 2007;69(6):560-565.