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Say My Name: The Power of Naming Emotions

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

In the process of trying to avoid, push away, or minimize negative emotions, people often miss one of the most simple and powerful ways to change emotions: naming them. It sounds somewhat counterintuitive—why would saying I feel sad or anxious help me to feel better? In fact, when asked how much naming a negative emotion would help them to feel better, most people do not think that it will be a useful strategy.¹ However, a large body of evidence now exists to suggest that this simple, easy-to-use technique can be powerful for helping people to get a hold of strong negative emotions.

Studies that looked at naming emotions in scary situations have found that it can be useful in reducing fear. For example, one study² exposed people with a spider phobia to a real, live tarantula, asking them to get progressively closer over time and even touch the spider. The people in the study were told to either name their feelings about being near the spider, to try to change those feelings, or to try to distract themselves mentally from the spider. People who named their fears were less physically anxious the next time they were put near a spider and were willing to get closer to the spider than the people who tried to distract themselves from how afraid they were. All it took was saying the name of the feeling they were having out loud, as they were experiencing it. In fact, the people who used the most words associated with anxiety and fear when labeling their emotions got the most benefit—they were the least afraid of the spider in the future. Other research³ done with brain imaging technology has shown that naming emotions reduced brain activation in a part of the brain associated with fear and other emotions (the amgydala).

Similar benefits can be obtained by writing down thoughts and feelings about personal, meaningful topics or events.⁴ Expressive writing about difficult, scary, or traumatic events has been linked with a wide range of positive outcomes, including improved physical health, decreases in negative emotions like anger and depression, improved social relationships, and better school outcomes. Keeping a journal and writing at least three times for at least 15 minutes about a negative or upsetting event (both the facts and feelings associated with it) can be a straightforward at-home tool to improve mental health.

So the next time you’re faced with a difficult or overwhelming emotion—name it!


[1] Lieberman, M.D., Inagaki, T.K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M.J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion, 11, 468-480.s
[2] Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M.D., & Craske, M.G. (2012). Feelings into words: contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological Science, 23, 1086-1091.
[3] 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 to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421–428.
[4] Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychololgical Bulletin, 132, 823-865.

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