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Wellness Challenge: A Self Check-in for Mental Health

Today, ask yourself “How are you, really?” Think before you answer. Find a word that describes exactly what you’re feeling. Unsettled? Energetic? Delighted? Frazzled? (Avoid standard answers like “good,” “fine,” or “OK.”) Emotions are brain messengers, and studies show that regularly labeling your emotions and creating a “feeling vocabulary” is good for your health.

For many of us, emerging from pandemic life has created a flurry of new emotions. A large body of research shows that labeling these emotions — something scientists call “affect labeling” — can calm your brain and reduce stress.

But psychologists say that many people make the mistake of trying to ignore negative feelings rather than acknowledging them.

“We think labeling the emotion will cause us to focus on it and accentuate it,” said Matt Lieberman, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.” “In reality, labeling the emotion tends to dampen it a bit so we move on to other things.”

Dr. Lieberman and his colleagues have conducted a number of brain scan studies showing how the brain reacts to affect labeling. In one study, people in brain scanners looked at images of angry, sad and frustrated faces. A control group just labeled the faces as male or female. But another group was asked to label the emotion they were seeing, with words like angry, sad or frustrated.

In both groups, brain scans showed that looking at the expressive faces activated the amygdala, which serves as the brain’s emotional alarm system and is associated with the stress response. But when the second group labeled the emotions, the amygdala quieted down, and a region in the prefrontal cortex that helps manage emotional reactions became active.

Labeling the emotion appears to essentially turn off the alarm bells that are “telling your brain to be scared or angry,” said Dr. Lieberman. “Our brain seems to be wired such that as the front of your brain gets a clear understanding of your emotional state, the amygdala calms down a little bit so that emotional alarm is less distracting.”

In another intriguing study, people who were terrified of spiders were asked to label their feelings when they saw a live tarantula. The people who used the most specific and negative language to identify their fears (“I feel anxious that the disgusting tarantula will jump on me!”) became less fearful in subsequent tests than those who hadn’t expressed their emotions.

“You might expect that drawing your own attention to how much the spider is making you feel stressed and uncomfortable would only amplify everything,” Dr. Lieberman said. “But the people who had previously engaged in the affect labeling about how they were feeling were more willing the next day to go farther in the test and get closer to the spider.”

Identifying your emotions takes practice. At the Hoffman Institute Foundation, which offers a weeklong retreat to help people identify negative behavioral patterns, each session starts by asking participants what they are feeling. The Institute has compiled a detailed list of more than 300 feeling words to help people tune into their exact emotional state. You can download the complete feelings list here. (Consider printing the list and putting it on the fridge for the whole family to use.) It can be a fun exercise to scan the list to find just the right word to describe how you’re feeling.

Here are a few options:

  • Positive moods: amazed, appreciative, confident, determined, energized, grounded, inspired, optimistic, refreshed, worthy

  • Negative moods: anxious, bitter, disappointed, edgy, exasperated, gloomy, grouchy, lonely, powerless, weary

Hilary Illick, a senior teacher at the Hoffman Institute and a certified life coach in Cambridge, Mass., often recommends that people set hourly alarms to take a mindful moment to think about exactly how they are feeling. “It grounds us,” Ms. Illick said. “Even if I’m upset and I drill down to the feelings that are making me upset, just noticing that and naming that is deeply soothing psychologically.”

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