Labelling anxiety — putting the feeling into words — can reduce the fear response, research finds.
In fact, the more fearful words people use to describe their anxiety, the more their anxiety reduces.
However, the study also found that people don’t expect that labelling their emotions will reduce anxiety.
But, recordings of their skin conductance show that it does.[Find out more about Dr Jeremy Dean’s anxiety ebook.]
The study compared labelling anxiety with other common methods of reducing anxiety, including distraction and reappraisal.
Reappraisal refers to thinking about anxiety in a different way.
For example, the study was carried out in people with a fear of spiders.
In the reappraisal condition they were asked to use neutral words to think about a spider.
Here is one:
“Looking at the little spider is not dangerous for me.”
In contrast, people in the labelling condition were given these instructions:
“Participants in the affect-labeling group were instructed to create and speak a sentence including a negative word to describe the spider and a negative word or two to describe their emotional response to the spider (e.g., “I feel anxious the disgusting tarantula will jump on me”).
All the groups were exposed to spiders over varying lengths of time and followed up a week later.
The study’s authors describe the results:
“…the affect-labeling group exhibited reduced skin conductance response relative to the other groups and marginally greater approach behavior than the distraction group…[…]
…greater use of anxiety and fear words during exposure was associated with greater reductions in fear responding.”
The lower skin conductance suggests that those who labelled their emotions were less fearful of spiders.
There are now many studies that show the benefits of verbalising emotions in all sorts of contexts:
“…experimental studies have found that when current emotional experience is verbalized, whether in spoken or written form, distress is reduced relative to conditions in which no verbalization or verbalization of nonaffective material occurs.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Kircanski et al., 2012).