One simple practice to get (and stay) in touch with your emotions

It can be hard sometimes to understand what we’re feeling, let alone why. In today’s world, being able to feel our emotions can seem like a luxury – we’re too busy, too tired, or too responsible to others.

Other times, emotions can be so powerful they become overwhelming and rule our body and mind. They can make us feel like we’re not in control, and that can be scary.

As a result of either scenario, we disconnect from our feelings. We try to shut them out because they aren’t convenient for us. But what implications can that have on our lives? Are we shutting out emotions that could be helpful, too?

Getting in touch with your emotions, no matter how scary, might be the key to building your emotional muscle and responding – not reacting – to feelings as they come and go. Emotional Naming is just one tool you might use to stay connected with your feelings.

What is Emotional Naming?

Emotional Naming is a simple exercise where you apply a label to the emotions you’re feeling. This label is usually a single-word adjective to describe how you feel. For example, you might feel “calm”, “angry”, or “despondent”.

To help with this, many resources exist online such as the Feelings Wheel. Emotional Naming is also a core activity in the emotional wellbeing app Kinder World. This feature of Kinder World makes it easy to select or write-in an emotion, and record it in a way that acknowledges the emotion while also recognising it is temporary.

These tools offer a variety of vague or specific descriptors to help you pinpoint your exact emotion. Ultimately, the words you choose don’t matter too much – there’s no right or wrong – all that’s important is that the words mean something to you and feel like an accurate representation of your feelings.

Tools like those mentioned above can be particularly helpful if you’re just starting out with Emotional Naming, as they can build your emotional vocabulary.

Note: Emotional Naming is often talked about to help with difficult emotions, but it has a lot of value as a regular, daily practice. Even when you’re feeling content, calm or happy, noting and naming the way you feel can help to provide perspective and self-compassion. Just 2 minutes a day to regularly name your emotions can build your emotional resilience and support your wellbeing.

What difference does Emotional Naming make?

So what difference does naming your emotions really make? It’s a relatively low-input exercise, so how much impact can it have?

Research suggests that Emotional Naming can have significant wellbeing benefits when used appropriately. At a basic level, Emotional Naming helps us to reframe our emotions - it gives us an opportunity to step back and look at our feelings with a degree of objectivity. This can help to reduce the intensity of the emotion and give us the space we need to respond and not react.

A 2012 study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that naming your emotions during moments of stress can help you feel less afraid and less anxious. In the study, 88 people with a fear of spiders were asked to approach a tarantula in an open container outdoors and to touch the tarantula if they could.

These participants were split into four groups, with each group given slightly different instructions:

  • Group 1 was told to label their emotions, for example, “I am afraid of this tarantula”.
  • Group 2 was told to use a more neutral statement that did not convey an emotion, but aimed to make the experience seem less threatening, e.g. “The tarantula is in a cage, there’s no reason to be afraid”.
  • Group 3 was told to say something irrelevant to the experience entirely.
  • Group 4 was told not to say anything.

The researchers found that Group 1, who completed Emotional Naming, experienced less of a threat response and were able to move significantly closer to the tarantula than members of other groups.

While the research is still relatively young, there is evidence that Emotional Naming can help us to reduce the intensity of heightened emotions.

In addition, Emotional Naming can help to build emotional literacy and equip us with the language and tools we need to reflect on our own feelings and communicate them to others.

How does Emotional Naming make a difference?

It’s clear that Emotional Naming can have significant benefits in helping us manage our own responses, but why does it work? Additional UCLA studies showed that people expected that thinking about the negative emotions they feel when shown a disturbing image would make the experience worse – so why is the opposite true in practice?

The answer, UCLA suggests, lies in brain science. In a brain imaging study, researchers found that when participants felt heightened emotions like anger, sadness, and pain, there was increased activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for responding to stimuli that trigger an emotional response).

When participants named their emotions, researchers saw activity in the amygdala decrease, while activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) increased. This region, located behind the forehead and eyes, has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, although little more is known about what it contributes.

As we learn to identify, label and express emotions, the right VLPFC may be strengthened. In turn, we are then better able to respond to our feelings less reactively and more responsively.

Emotional Naming is similar to journaling, says Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.

"People don't [journal] to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you're feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn't work that way. If you know you're trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn't work -- self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn't require you to want to feel better, it doesn't have this problem."

Why do I find it hard to name my feelings?

While Emotional Naming is simple on paper, it’s not as easy for some. Alexithymia is a condition that literally translates to “without words for emotions”.

People with alexithymia may not recognise when they are having an emotional response, or if they do, they may not be able to describe or differentiate their emotions. For people with alexithymia, they may only know they feel “bad”, without being able to hone in on the specific emotion be it “angry”, “upset”, “afraid”, or a mix of emotions.

Alexithymia is not well understood, and its causes are uncertain. It’s possible there is a genetic component, however, it has also been correlated with childhood neglect and trauma, major depressive and postpartum disorders, schizophrenia, autism, and traumatic brain injuries.

According to Dr. Dawn M. Neumann, guided Emotional Naming could be quite powerful for people with alexithymia. Guided Emotional Naming is where a therapist or an interactive tool might be used to help the person with alexithymia to identify their emotions. By paying attention to physiological indicators, a person with alexithymia may be able to learn how different emotions feel in their body and gain a greater ability to identify their feelings.

I feel a lot of negative emotions - what does that say about me?

Often when talking about emotions, we default to calling certain feelings “negative emotions”. Feelings like fear, stress, anger, and sadness are painted as “negative”, usually because they feel unpleasant and can even create adverse physiological reactions.

It’s only natural that we think of these emotions as negative when we do not like them – but there’s usually a benefit to them. All emotions are information – signals that tell us if we should approach, flee, or stay, among other responses.

So while “negative” feelings are neither pleasant nor desirable, they still serve a purpose. Fear tells us to flinch or move away from a potential threat, disappointment helps us understand what we want or need, and worry can inform us that something isn’t right.

Boredom motivates us to seek new stimuli, activities or goals. Frustration highlights obstacles for us to overcome. Anger can push us towards seeking justice in an unfair situation.

If you notice you feel a lot of “negative” emotions, you might feel compelled to shut them off or push them away. You might feel ashamed that you aren’t “happy” on paper, but emotions aren’t so simple.

Heightened “negative” emotions might be a sign that you’re unhappy in your current situation, either due to personal circumstances or wider societal factors. It could be a sign of a mental health issue, which you could seek help with. It might just be indicative of a difficult period in your life.

Feeling “negative” emotions is a part of life. These emotions help us navigate social situations, dangers, and stressors. Focusing on being “happy” without acknowledging these important emotions can create toxic positivity, which only highlights how other people might think you “should” feel and not what you do feel. This isn’t helpful, and can engineer further shame.

Ultimately, all emotions – “positive” and “negative” – are temporary and valid. If you often feel one way, know that it does not say something about you as a person. Your emotions will come and go, and sometimes they might stay for longer than you’d like, but they aren’t you.

Why am I feeling what I’m feeling?

For a lot of people, it can seem important to not just understand what you’re feeling but why you’re feeling that way. This kind of reflection can be extremely helpful in learning about ourselves, our needs and our values.

But thinking about the why too soon can cause us to intellectualise our feelings – that is, we think instead of feel. Kinder World wellbeing researcher Dr. Hannah Gundermann comments:

“Intellectualization is a useful tool for emotional intelligence! It helps us understand how we react to certain situations. But it's not the right tool during this early stage of emotional processing. It can distance us from our feelings while making us feel like we are appropriately dealing with a situation.”

Before you ask yourself exactly why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, it’s important to allow yourself to feel it. That may sound silly on paper – after all, an emotion is felt the moment it occurs. But there’s a larger process to consider. Think of emotional processing in five steps:

  1. Notice: Recognise that you’re feeling something.
  2. Name: Label the feeling with a word that is meaningful to you.
  3. Feel: Sit with the feeling, and allow yourself the space to feel that way.
  4. Process: Reflect and analyse what you need to move on from that feeling. Learn what your feelings are trying to teach you.
  5. Let Go: Release the emotion.

It’s important to note that these may not always occur in exactly the same order. Particularly strong emotions might benefit from being felt before they are named. In some cases, people may need to intellectualise or process an emotion now while making time later to allow themselves to feel it.

There are all sorts of different reasons your process may not perfectly match the above, including:

  • Protective reasons: You may not feel safe or comfortable feeling your emotions, possibly due to environmental or social factors.
  • Adaptive reasons: Many of us are often told to “have a stiff upper lip”, or “boys don’t cry”. Repeated messages like this when we’re young can teach us to suppress or avoid feeling our emotions.
  • Efficiency reasons: In capitalist Western societies, we’re often made to feel we don’t have time or it’s not productive to feel strong emotions.

These reasons, while not your fault, can hold you back from proper healing. While there’s no prescriptive order of events you have to go through to process your emotions fully, each of the five steps above plays an important role in healing. But the way that works for you may differ from scenario to scenario, person to person, or emotion to emotion.

While all of these steps are crucial, perhaps the most overlooked is the feeling step. It can be hard to provide instructions for feeling your emotions, because it won’t feel or look the same for every person and every emotion. But think of this step as allowing yourself to just sit with the emotion without feedback, without judgement, and without “thinking” about it.

For some people, feeling can look like taking time out to curl up on the couch. It can be having a cry, writing poetry, throwing paint on a canvas or singing along to songs that match the way you feel. It could be screaming into a pillow.

A helpful exercise for people who are stuck on suppressing or intellectualising their feelings can be acknowledging the physical sensations in the body: Not applying any judgements, but simply sitting and recognising how your body feels. Is your gut tight? Are your shoulders tense? Does your head hurt? Does your heart hurt?

Just allowing yourself some time to note what you’re physically feeling can help to make space for how you’re emotionally feeling.

Emotional Naming for parents

Emotional Naming is a commonly recommended practice for parents. The application of Emotional Naming in childcare is often connected to the phrase “name it to tame it”, coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

Many consider that Emotional Naming can be an effective way to calm a child down and help them to build emotional intelligence at an early age. Emotional Naming can be done by asking your child to name their emotion for you, or suggesting how they might be feeling and asking them to confirm or deny.

In some situations, Emotional Naming can interrupt a strong emotional reaction and help to restore a child’s emotional balance. This can be useful for parents who are struggling to understand or communicate with their child.

However, some recent perspectives have spoken against Emotional Naming as a first step in helping young children with strong emotions.

Children aren’t used to navigating their own emotions, but they’re often much better at feeling them. As explored above, feeling strong emotions in full can be an important part of the natural healing process. It isn’t always necessary to name the emotions first.

Naming emotions while they’re still intense can interrupt the natural process, and make children feel as if they’re being pulled away from being able to feel the feelings. Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, explains that Emotional Naming “pulls the child away from noticing what’s going on in their limbic system and offloading the tension there, to trying to agree with you or disagree with your about the feeling that you named”.

Instead, allowing the child to feel the emotion and reach their own state of calm can be a more beneficial practice. This doesn’t mean sending them off to cry it out, but employing a practice called Staylistening. In this practice, you should allow your child to be upset. Say little, stay close, and listen warmly. Occasionally mention the source of the upset and reassure the child that you understand why they’re upset, and that it’s okay.

Once the emotions are fully felt, they can be released, and evaporate.

In these situations, the best time to talk to your children about their emotions might be when things are calm again. It can be most beneficial to retroactively name the emotions so the child can learn the vocabulary to communicate how they were feeling, and understand how their emotions feel in their body.

Of course, this may change from child to child and doesn’t consider factors like neurodivergence and trauma. If you’re wondering how appropriate Emotional Naming might be for your child, it’s best to talk to a licensed child psychologist or childcare specialist.

Other practices for emotional wellbeing

Emotional Naming can be a great tool for getting and staying in touch with your feelings, but it is just one tool in the emotional wellbeing kit.

Other practices that may help to improve your emotional intelligence and wellbeing include:

  • Mood tracking
  • Journalling
  • Art therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Mindful breathing
  • Daily gratitude
  • Forgiveness
  • Noting meditation

Further reading

Below are some resources you may find valuable for further education on Emotional Naming and emotional wellbeing.

Meenadchi – Meenadchi (she/her) is a teacher Non-Violent Communication through a decolonised and transformative justice lens (DNVC). You can access a list of body sensations that may be helpful for noting and identifying feelings by signing up for her mailing list.– The Emotion Compass is a free website for those who want to learn about emotions, explore their emotions, and practice managing emotions in a healing way.

My Emotional Compass – This app was developed by CreateAbility Concepts, Inc. with Dr. Dawn M. Neumann to help people with alexithymia identify their emotions. Note that Dr. Neumann has said the following about My Emotional Compass:

“While My Emotional Compass can be used by a person on his or her own, it has never been tested without being a part of clinician-guided therapy. It is likely to be most beneficial if introduced to the patient by a clinician and used to facilitate therapy, as well as to monitor progress outside of therapy sessions.”

Hand in Hand Parenting – This nonprofit organisation helps parents when parenting is hard. They have numerous resources about Staylistening and emotional wellbeing for children including those referenced in this article:

More on emotional naming