Name that Emotion! Words Help Lessen Impact of Negative Events


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Many people fear spiders: Photo by jcantroot

“You’re feeling very sleepy…”

Every fan of B horror films has seen the hypnotist in action.

The underlying assumption is that by hearing or repeating a phrase, a bodily response will occur.

In a similar vein, Dr. Katerina Kircanski and colleagues at UCLA decided to investigate whether people’s own language use can help treat phobia, irrational fear of things like heights or, in the case of Kircanski’s study, spiders.

Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction

Small children are often intentionally taught to label emotions as part of pre-school curriculum.

But what about adults?

Does verbally acknowledging  emotion make any difference on the intensity of the emotion?  To find out, the researchers divided 88 participants into three groups to study the effect of either labeling their negative emotion verbally (affect labeling), substituting neutral phrases about their negative experience (reappraisal), or making up a sentence about an unrelated familiar object (distraction).

Gender Differences in Emotional Response

The study, researching the reactions of people who were afraid of spiders, was disproportionately conducted on women. When Decoded Science asked the author to elaborate on the disparity, Karcanski explained, “because specific phobias and other anxiety disorders are more common among women than among men, we anticipated having more female than male  participants in our study. A neuroimaging study by Dr. Lieberman and colleagues, published in 2007, indicated that there were no significant sex differences in activity in the amygdala (a brain region involved in processing emotions) during affect labeling, and so it is possible that the effects of affect labeling in an exposure context also do not vary by sex.”

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