The super-power of putting your emotions into words
It's an emotional week. As agency leaders, it's often hard to talk about how we actually feel, believing maybe that we should rise above it all. But is that right? Can talking about our emotions actually help?
Well … yep, it turns out. It might even be a super-power.
Surveys frequently show that people think it doesn't work. On the contrary, most believe that talking about their emotions makes things worse, that it actually amplifies what we're feeling, elevating things and making our emotions more extreme than they were already.
This is especially so for men. As babies, boys show no less social orientation than anyone else, but by the time they've hit their mid-teens, males mostly succumb to stereotypes and avoid putting their feelings into words.
The reality is very different. The evidence shows that talking about how we're feeling does really help to take the heat out of our emotions. Putting one's emotions into words is called 'affect labelling' by researchers.
In 2019, a study was made of emotions expressed on Twitter. It looked at the dynamics of explicit affect labelling over time. The study took a very large sample of Twitter users (665,081 randomly selected subjects), and examined tweets that explicitly expressed emotions (‘I feel happy’, ‘I'm sad’, etc.). They then used sentiment analysis to review the author's tweets for 6hrs both before and after to see how their emotions evolved over time – the full sample contained approximately 1.15 billion tweets across all individual timelines. The aim was to get an insight into how feelings change at the minute-scale.
The study showed that emotions take a while to build up — slowly for negative emotions, faster for positive. But then, once the intense feelings have been expressed in words, the heightened emotional state to return to normal. But here's the magic part …
For negative emotions in particular, once you've actually said how you're feeling, the study showed things return sharply to previous levels.
The actual pattern is slightly different for positive and negative emotions. The expression of positive emotions is preceded by a short, steep increase in positive feelings, then followed by steady decay to normal levels. Negative emotions, however, build up more slowly and are followed by a sharp reversal to previous levels.
Other studies have shown similar things, that talking is a powerful antidote to overpowering emotions in all manner of situations — viewing disturbing images, or anxiety before public speaking, for example.
Brain imaging studies have shown how talking about our feelings helps to shift activity from the core fear region, the amygdala, the first part of the brain to handle emotions, to the part of the brain associated with stress regulation, the pre-frontal cortex. This is remarkably similar to the effects seen with reappraisal, the emotion regulation method that I described previously.
Letting it all out really does let it all out.
Putting your feelings into words can be an incredibly powerful way to alleviate their intensity.
It's often nerve-wracking and, to be sure, can go wrong if the person listening to you is distracted or doesn't have the time to hear all you have to say. But, done right, expressing your feelings in words is a highly effective way to achieving relief. And the benefits are long-lasting, too, especially with negative or upsetting emotions.
For agency leaders then, talking about our emotions may be a super-power.
We've been through several years now of very difficult times — adapting to the pandemic, and lots of social and economic upheaval (and there maybe more ahead, too). Talking about things with people we trust may just be an essential thing to help us cope with the demands of leading an agency.
Tomorrow I've got one more strategy for regulating our emotions — acceptance.
Other posts in this series: