A new study using brain imaging quantifies the benefits of putting feelings into words when talking with a therapist or friend, or writing in a journal.
UCLA psychologists report differenct areas of brain are active when individuals communicate their feelings. In turn, the shift of brain activity is associated with better control of our emotions, making our feelings of sadness, anger and pain less intense.
The study showed that an area of the brain called the amygdale, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger, is less active when an individual labels feelings.
Further, another region of the brain is more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.
It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.
“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” said lead author Matthew D. Lieberman.
If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the person to talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained. These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.
“We typically think of language processing in the left side of the brain; however, this effect was occurring only in this one region, on the right side of the brain,” he said. “It’s rare to see only one region of the brain responsive to a high-level process like labeling emotions.”
Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.
“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said.
“People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult.
“Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”
“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said. “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”