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Why ‘naming your feelings’ could be the fastest way to stop anxiety in its tracks

What if we told you that simply naming your emotions is a quick, easy, scientifically-proven way to diffuse your anxiety and get grounded? Well, read on… 

We’ve all certainly been through the mill in the last year, between drought, bushfires and everything the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it, it’s completely understandable if your mental health has felt chaotic.

There’s power and clarity to be found in naming our feelings, by simply labelling an emotion, we can create distance between ourselves and our experience that allows us to choose how to respond – rather than react – to challenges.

And we’re not just saying that, science has proven it time and again.

The power of naming your feelings

One study, conducted by UCLA professor of psychology Matthew D. Lieberman, found that when we feel angry we have increased activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala.

The amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and setting off a series of biological alarms and responses to protect the body from danger. When the angry feeling is labelled, Lieberman and researchers noted a decreased response in the amygdala and an increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved with inhibiting behaviour and processing emotions.

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving and 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, a person may feel less angry or less sad,” explains Prof Lieberman.

Of course, words don’t always come easily – especially if you’re really feeling it – which is where The Feelings Wheel, created by Dr Gloria Willcox, can help us.

Finding the right words

Using intellectual language — words that are not connected to your direct experience — can distance you from your emotions and make it more difficult to know what you are truly feeling. The wheel provides some more emotional words you can say in place of intellectual ones.

It has six core feelings: mad, scared, joyful, powerful, peaceful and sad. A secondary ring of words helps narrow those feelings down. A third, outer ring gets even more specific. In all, there are 72 adjectives to link to your feelings.

How to use the Feelings Wheel

FEELING THE THING: When a feeling starts to arise, look at the wheel.

GET TO THE CORE FEELING FIRST: Start with the inner-most wheel and move outward, moving from the core feelings toward any associated feelings that might be coming up for you.

HOW DO YOU FEEL? If a core emotion is not clear, you can move from the outside in, identifying the associated feeling first and then making your way toward the core emotion.

The main thing to remember is, this is a tool to help you. So if you can, try not to stress if you can’t find the right word. You don’t necessarily need to ‘hunt’ for the answer here rather, as you look, notice which words resonate with you.