Spring has sprung and hope is in the air, but not everyone is feeling peachy. It’s been a tough winter and your inner world might still be thawing out. That’s ok! Before you let the sunshine in, it can actually help you to sit with the stormy stuff you’re going through. According to scientists, putting negative feelings into words can help us understand and regulate negative emotional experiences. In short, the best thing you can do with unpleasant emotions is not to numb them, but to name them.
- Check in with yourself
Take a second and do a quick, silent check-in with yourself. Ask yourself: “what I am feeling right now?” What is the word that best describes it? If you’re feeling anxious, name it, internally. Say to yourself “I feel anxious.” If you’re feeling angry, say that too. Even if you’re simply feeling calm. Say that.
Hint: Start with the basics. With emotions, going basic is a good place to start. Think “emoji” basic. There are hundreds of feeling words, but don’t get caught up on getting it exactly right. Focus for now on your most common emotions: mad, sad, happy, disgusted, scared. You might even try looking at yourself in the mirror. What does your own facial expression tell you?
- Now get precise
When you get specific and find the precise word or words to describe the emotion, you will get closer to what you’re actually feeling. Find multiple words – synonyms or nuances – to describe the emotion. This is called “emotional granularity” or “emotional differentiation” and getting “granular” will improve your well-being and reduce unhealthy responses. It will actually make it less likely you’ll resort to using substances to numb out.
- Make a note of it
Write yourself a message about what you’re feeling. It could be a quick note on your phone, on the back of a napkin or on a little yellow sticky. Or you could post it on your social media. (In fact, a recent student demonstrated that even tweeting out your feelings reduces their intensity.) Plus, writing down what you feel can help you clarify what’s going on.
- Take it to the next level
Try writing out a more detailed expression of how you feel. Whether it’s a special, hardbound journal or a ratty old notebook, take it out. Go ahead and dive in with what you’re feeling. Take 15 minutes to really delve in. For decades, researcher and psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker has been demonstrating how writing – and, in particular, expressive writing– can help people understand and process what’s going on in their own minds and bodies.
- Say it out loud
Express your emotions by simply naming them out loud. Verbalize the feelings.
- Talk it through.
Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, has long revealed that speaking about our feelings is therapeutic. So, once you’ve verbalized your feelings, don’t stop there. Go ahead and dive in. Expressing and describing your feelings to a friend, a loved one or a therapist might give you greater clarity even while it makes you feel good.
- Now go full circle.
Check back in with yourself. How are you feeling now? Or better yet, what are you feeling? To calm your inner world, you need to get familiar with it. As the emotion scientists say: you’ve got to feel it to heal it. If your emotions are overwhelming, persistent and/or are interfering with your daily functioning, it’s important to seek mental health support.
Kashdan TB, Barrett LF, McKnight PE. Unpacking Emotion Differentiation: Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2015;24(1):10-16. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721414550708
Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science. 2007;18(5):421-428. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
Pennebaker JW. Expressive Writing in Psychological Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2018;13(2):226-229. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1745691617707315