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“Affect Labeling”: Step ONE in Emotional Self-Care

What if you could feel less angry, sad, or anxious with just one word?  How great would that be?!

Most of the time, instead of doing what works, we just keep doing what we’ve always done, hoping it will work (like it used to).

So where does our capacity to do something different start? Recent research shows us that there may be ONE simple skill you can use, which can actually create changes in your brain, emotions, and behavior….

To help you self regulate and be the emotional grown up you want to be!

What the Heck is “Affect Labeling”?

“Affect Labeling” is psychology jargon for simply putting your emotions into words. In a very cool new article, recently published in the journal Emotion Review, UCLA researchers Jared Torre and Matt Lieberman took a deep dive look at studies on the effects of affect labeling.

A wide variety of studies showed that labeling a current emotion can curb the way it gets expressed in the brain, the body, and our behavior. Amazingly, this simple skill appears to work just as well as more explicit ways we try to reduce our emotions, such as reframing our thoughts about a situation.

From studies looking at everything from brain and body effects, to self report, they surmised that simply labeling how we are feeling when an emotion is triggered acts as a type of implicit way of self regulating.

Implicit Versus Explicit Emotion Regulation?

You might be thinking, “wait a second” if it’s implicit then it only works when I’m not aware of it, what good is that to me? But here’s the cool thing. Turns out that labeling emotions led to less reactivity, whether or not we’re doing so intentionally.

But even so, we still tend to under utilize emotion labeling as a conscious chosen skill. That’s probably because it is so ingrained in us to believe that we should avoid our emotions. The writers cite evidence where subjects continue to wrongly predict that emotion labeling will lead to increased emotions, even after they just reported a decrease in emotions after labeling in the experiment!

So, it’s like we cling to our belief that we ‘should ignore’ our feelings, even if our experience (and now research) shows us that verbally acknowledging our feelings helps ease them a bit.

Short term versus long term

Another interesting finding was the difference between the immediate and longer-term effects of emotion labeling. This difference is important when considering how to practice this skill in our lives.

It turns out that, in the heat of the moment, when the emotion is activated, having a list of words accessible to choose from works best. But when left on your own, to figure out what you’re feeling, there’s likely to be a brief increase as you sift through your internal experience. The benefits of figuring out your own emotional state comes later, and lasts longer.

What this means is that there is a moment where the emotion has just been triggered and a choice to be made: Do I want to regulate it now (for the quick win) or regulate it over time, for the longer-term benefits?

The review writers surmise, “It may also be that while self-generating labels may be more difficult and less effective in the immediate situation, those labels are ultimately more relevant to the individual generating them and lead to longer lasting effects.”

Is more better?

When it comes to labeling our emotions, it seems that the old adage, ‘A little is good, more must be better,” may not be true when it comes to our emotional self-care. There were only two studies looking at the impact of how much labeling to use; one suggested more was better, the other found too much or too little was problematic.

My suggestion? Label them, honor them, and then pivot to another skill. Too much ‘affect labeling’ can start to look an awful-lot like ruminating, worrying, judging and other unhelpful mind traps.

The Practice: ‘Use Your Words.’

Taken together, it seems the old kindergarten advice for what to do when we’re upset still holds true; Use Your Words.

So Step-ONE in becoming an emotional grownup, is to stop trying to ignore your emotions – explicitly start building your emotion vocabulary and labeling your emotions.

The studies showed that the effects of emotion labeling can be attained by either speaking or writing about your feelings.  Choosing from a list of words seemed to work best for regulating in the heat of a moment.

Let’s Practice:

Right now, turn your attention inward and find a verbal label for your current emotional or mood state. As best you can, find one specific word, such as sad, irritable, anxious, etc. Our emotions have an essential communication function, so it’s important to get as specific as you can, to know what they are trying to tell you!

Notice if finding words for your feelings is challenging, lots of people say it is. Because it takes practice.

So, the choice is yours: Start using your words to honor your difficult emotions, or keep ignoring your pain and hope it will go away, or the situation will change, or somehow, it will just ‘happen’. Becoming an emotional grownup means doing the hard work of taking ownership from the inside. So, it’s up to you to be willing to be there for yourself, in the service of being the adult you want to be.

I hope you find this blog helpful! If you have any questions, shoot me a message in the comments section. We’re all in this thing called Mastering-Adulthood together. So, let me know if you have any questions about how to be skillful with your emotions and build a life you love!

This blog was inspired by Dr. Fielding’s upcoming book: Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grownup. To learn more helpful skills for Mastering Adulthood, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery SKILL WEEKLY newsletter, or follow me on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram. Or YouTube for skills videos!


“Affect Labeling”: Step ONE in Emotional Self-Care

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2018). “Affect Labeling”: Step ONE in Emotional Self-Care. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2018
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