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Emotional labeling: what it is and what it is for in psychotherapy

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Emotionality is a fundamental characteristic of the human being, so it is no coincidence that it is tremendously complex.

In order to address this dimension, we usually use language, in what is called emotional labeling. We are going to deal with this matter in depth to discover how this action is carried out, what is the usefulness it supposes and its importance at different stages of development.

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What is emotional labeling?

Emotional labeling is a mechanism by which people try to identify their own emotions or the emotions of others using specific words. That is to say, what they do is assign a label, in this case verbal, to a very specific feeling that they are experiencing or that they intuit that another individual is experiencing.

This action, which a priori may be very obvious and simple, is actually of enormous importance, since it allows, in the first place, to translate into our spoken language sensations that are sometimes tremendously deep and complex, which facilitates both the own understanding of the emotions felt, and the understanding of how they feel others.

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Not only that. Emotional labeling it is also essential to be able to share this information, that is, to be able to transmit from one person to another, sometimes with a simple word, the feelings that are experiencing the individual, so that others can understand instantly, by sharing the same language.

But beyond that basic (but vitally important) utility, the reality is that emotional tagging has much deeper implications, which are what we'll explore next.

Labeling and regulation of emotions

The first of those benefits of emotional labeling that we are going to review is precisely that of the regulation of emotions. As we have already mentioned, by identifying these feelings through words, even the person himself is aware of the state of mind in which he is.

That ability opens the door to another really interesting possibility, which is that of emotional regulation. And is that By being aware of what he is feeling, the individual can learn to control this sensation, if it is too intense and is causing you discomfort, or for any other reason.

Therefore, the person would first perform emotional labeling, then use it to be aware of the specific emotion that he is experiencing and, Finally, you could take advantage of this knowledge to work on the emotion in question and thus reduce the level of intensity or even replace it with other.

If used properly, this ability can be used therapeutically as a resource to treat various pathologies, as can be the case with phobias. This phenomenon has been studied, among others, by Katharina Kircanski and her collaborators, in a work published in 2012.

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Treatment of phobias through emotional labeling

This research dealt with the use of emotional labeling to help people who suffered from an excruciating fear of spiders. For this, two groups were formed. Both were going to be treated for their phobia through the technique of exposing the aversive stimulus, that is, to a spider, which was what caused them to panic.

However, one of these groups was also going to be applied another variable, which was none other than the labeling of the emotions they were feeling. After a week of study, the researchers were able to draw different conclusions. On the one hand, there appeared to be no significant difference in the fear that the participants said they were experiencing.

But, the interesting thing was that the group that, in addition to being exposed to the spider, worked on emotional labeling, trying to express exactly what they felt, demonstrated a lower physiological response to the aversive stimulus (the spider) after treatment, with respect to the members of the control group. This response was measured through the conductivity of the skin.

It was also found that the individuals in the experimental group were able to get closer to the spider than those who had not used the language to express their feelings and emotions during the treatment phase, that is, those who had not made use of labeling emotional.

The main conclusion that Kircanski and her colleagues found in this study is that having used more words to try to define exactly what they were feeling, seemed to help experimental group participants reduce their fear, with the same spiders exposure work that people in the group received control.

The effect is interesting enough to investigate further, as the data suggest that emotional labeling could be a powerful ally when working to heal phobias, and it may be that this effect can be used to help patients suffering from other psychopathologies.

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Emotional labeling in children's development

But beyond the therapeutic use of emotional labeling, this phenomenon has other more basic uses in human beings, even throughout our development during childhood. This question is the one analyzed by Daniela Vilca and Chamarrita Farkas, in Chile, in 2012.

These authors wanted to study the social and emotional development of a group of 30-month-old children and what role affective labeling played in this evolution. For this work, a sample of 84 children from different nursery schools in Santiago de Chile was taken. Various scales were used to record the language associated with emotions that the children used.

The method used for the investigation was the presentation of a story to the minors in which an event occurred to one of the characters that had a specific emotion associated with it. After reading the story, the children were asked how they thought the protagonist felt. Only 30.5% of the children used emotional labels when they answered the questions.

Primary emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear, or anger, were easier to recognize. Others more complex, such as shame or fear, caused more difficulties when it came to being recognized and expressed verbally. One of the most notable observations about the results is the difference between boys and girls, being they the ones that obtained the best results in the use of emotional labeling.

But there was an even better predictor for performance in this task, and it was the socioeconomic status of the families. If this level was medium-high, the children of said families scored significantly higher than the minors belonging to families of a low socioeconomic level. These differences were greater than those found between the sexes.

In any case, the authors are aware of the limitations of their research. To begin with, the sample was not large enough to be able to draw general conclusions with confidence. Likewise, the data were recorded through the information provided by the caregivers of the children, which could be producing bias in the measurements.

It has also been suggested that perhaps the task requested of the children exceeded the complexity recommended for their development and perhaps it would have been better to use another methodology, such as the presentation of faces that show different emotions, a system that has been used in many other studies.

Other ways to use emotional tagging

We have taken a tour of different utilities and characteristics of emotional labeling. The emotion regulation function that such activity has on the subjects has become clear. So, we can learn to use it to our advantage in certain circumstances.

One of them, frequently used, is the publication of the state of mind on social networks. The simple act of writing about a negative affectivity and thus being aware of it, has an effect therapeutic in the person who is feeling it, which may cause that feeling to be lowered or even forward.

But also, at a more social level, the responses generated to the publication, provided that they are in the line of consolation, can also help the subject to experience a more positive mood and therefore achieve the emotional regulation you sought, consciously or unconsciously, by labeling emotional.

Of course, it is not necessary to publicly expose feelings to achieve this effect. Another way to achieve this, in a private way, is to write these feelings simply for yourself, either in a journal or in another format. The goal is to be aware of what we are experiencing, and putting it into words is a very powerful way to achieve it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M.D., Craske, M.G. (2012). Feelings into words: contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological Science.
  • Lieberman, M.D. (2019). Affect labeling in the age of social media. Nature human behavior.
  • Torre, J.B., Lieberman, M.D. (2018). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review.
  • Vilca, D., Farkas, C. (2019). Language and Use of Emotional Labels: Its Relation to Socio-emotional Development in 30-Month-Old Children Attending Kindergarten. Psykhe (Santiago).
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