Psychotherapy and emotions labelling

Psychotherapy and counselling are talking therapies, based on the assumption that talking and reflecting about our own thoughts, emotions and experiences are powerful tools to feel better and change. In particular, the role of emotions is fundamental in our daily life and too often they are not considered, mistreated, denied or swallowed. Emotions on the contrary are our own individual compass that indicates how well we are dealing with our life and our goals. Paying attention and taking care of them is a way of assuring a balanced and mindful psychological life. 

In cognitive behavioural psychotherapy, if the patient happens to be confused, overwhelmed or simply not used to pay attention to emotions, one of the first steps in therapy is acknowledging them. This process is called “emotions’ psycho-education” and it implies getting to know each of our emotions, their role, aim and physiological activation in order to discover how our mind is functioning. This usually works by monitoring everyday our affective reactions and discovering which thoughts and goals are related. Therefore recognising and labelling the emotions we perceive is the prerequisite for regulating them in a healthy way. 

Despite being a technique that has been used since the birth of psychotherapy (and even earlier), it is only in recent times that scientific research has found the biological proofs of the powerful effect of labelling emotions. A research carried out by Lieberman et al. in 2007 clearly showed that affect labelling impacts the functioning of specific areas of our brain that are responsible for emotions’ processing and regulation. Specifically, translating feelings into words decreases the activation of a little region of our brain, the amygdala, that is responsible for automatic emotions activation.

On the contrary, affect labelling seems to increase the activity of a specific region of our pre-frontal cortex (the right ventrolateral area) that is responsible for a high-level processing of emotional information. A decrease of the amygdala’s activity and an increase of that specific aerea of the pre-frontal cortex help alleviating emotional distress. 

If you find yourself in a period of strong emotional distress, you may consider talking it through with a psychotherapist or a counsellor; talking therapies are an useful tool to better understand what is going on and to find different strategies to better deal with it. 

References:

Lieberman M.D, et al., “Putting feelings into words: affect labelling disrupts amygdala’s activity in response to affective stimuli”; Psychol Sci. 2007 May 18(5):421-8.

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Written by Ilaria Tedeschi

Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, BACP registered, working in Marylebone and Chelsea both in English and Italian, with adult and adolescent clients experiencing depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational issues.… Read more

Written by Ilaria Tedeschi

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