How many emotions do you think people can label in the moment they are experiencing them? Three? Five? Seven? If you answered three, you would be correct. Most people can only label three emotions as they experience them; anger, sadness, and happiness (Brown, 2021). There are approximately 3,000 emotion words in English, yet most of us can only label three. Limiting ourselves to three emotions greatly reduces our emotional intelligence, impacting our mental health in profound ways.
Studies have shown that putting feelings into words, or affect labeling, has the power to help us manage our negative emotions. This is thought to be done via neural pathways in the brain. Our brain relays on coded messaging to operate and make meaning out of life. Labeling our emotions encodes a message to our brain as to what we are experiencing. In the case of “negative emotions”, these encoded messages have the ability to diminish the response and reactivity of our amygdala and other limbic regions; or the areas of the brain responsible for our fight-flight-freeze system (Liberman, et. al., 2007). This in turn can reduce feelings of anxiety, fear, or other arousal responses.
So how do we go about increasing emotional intelligence? In essence, we want to learn what each emotion word means, and then how it feels emotionally and physically when we are experiencing it. Take happiness for example: do you feel your heart beating faster, a smile break out on your face, and butterflies in your stomach? Maybe with anxiety you feel a weight on your chest, a pit in your stomach, or a rapid heart beat? Learning how we feel when experiencing different emotions allows us to accurately label our experience, and also control the narrative of what we are experiencing (Brown, 2021). Some fun ways to go about increasing your emotional intelligence can be through the use of a feelings wheel displayed on a Frisbee or pillow. If you really want to get down into emotional language in a digestible way can I recommend Atlas of The Heart on HBO? Once you have learned what the different emotion words mean, start practicing labeling your experience. Taking a break from school or work? Try using one to three emotions words for what your experiencing. Having a fight with a loved one? Take a step back and use “I feel” statements to convey where you’re both at, to yourself and your loved one. Emotions are powerful, using language accurately to define our experience empowers us to respond, react, and engage in the way we desire.
Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience.
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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x