In early recovery I did not have a clue what emotions I was experiencing. I was not able to identify, label or process them. As a result of his failure to process emotions I seemed to be constantly distressed and and, as we seen in previous blogs, this distress leads to a distress-based impulsivity and a negative urgency to either engage in “fight or flight” behaviour, i.e. running away from fearful situations or ignoring the Big Book of AA’s recommendation not to fight anybody or anything.
The only way I could handle these troublesome and frightening emotions was by talking about them to my sponsor or my wife or other people in recovery.
In recent years it has become evident to that what I have been doing all these years have been using a technique of verbalising my emotions to actually process them. I now believe this is a fundamental part of my recovery and that I sometimes need to verbalise my emotions in order to process them. How does this work?
I recently came across an article (1) which might shed some light on this process.
Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences. Affect labeling or naming emotions diminishes the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. A brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face,they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems (including stress chemicals) to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D.Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study. The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was 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.
“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,” Lieberman said.
If a newcomer to recovery one is sad or angry or resentful , getting them person to talk or write may many have benefits.
In Lieberman’s study participant’s viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names,such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response.
“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 and if we can get newcomers to talk about them, that will make them feel better. They will experience part of the “solution” right way and be encouraged to come back for more.
So putting feelings into words helps with not only regulating and modulating the intensity of emotions, but helps with processing them, reduces distress and distress based impulsivity and shows there is a solution to unruly negative emotions.
In my experience this process has been a fundamental part of how it works!
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.