“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way”
Seamus Heaney was speaking from a poet’s perspective about the skill and potential benefit in being able to have ‘words’ to describe our emotions and experiences. Poetry often begins with emotion and finishes with profound insights about human nature. It may not feel like we are being poetic but finding words to describe and acknowledge our emotions is a very valuable skill to develop.
The power of langauge has been recognized in talk therapies for over a century and more recently neuroscientists has begun to offer insights into possible neurocognitive mechanism by which putting feelings into words may alleviate negative emotional responses.
We often make poor decisions when our senses are impaired by fear or anger. By identifying the underlying emotion and naming it, we are in fact stimulating our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain associated with reasoning, logic and memory. This then dampens down the arousal of the limbic system, the emotion center of the brain.
By naming the emotion we activate the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex on the right side of the brain, which calms down excessively aroused subcortical circuits like the amygdala — a small almond-shaped part of the brain in the limbic system. It is believed that this occurs through the secretion of inhibitory peptides like GABA or glutamate.
Daniel Siegal describes an endearing and memorable conversation with one of his clients in his book ‘Mindsight’. After a discussion about the role of her brain in her treatment, one of his young patients announced “I’m trying to get my prefrontal cortex to squirt GABA-goo over my amygdala”. She imagined a kind of gel to soothe the limbic system, such a wonderful way to think about what is happening in our brains when we put words on our emotions.
In the coaching situation a coachee can be helped to activate this dampening effect when the coach asks the coachee to think of the right word to identify an emotional sensation, a technique called ‘labelling’. Many of us struggle to identify what exactly we are feeling, and very often the most obvious label isn’t actually the most accurate. We know we are stressed, angry or anxious but the underlying emotions can be far more nuanced. We could be feeling frustrated, defensive, confused, victimized or embarrased. Broadening our emotional vocabulary helps us define our feelings in a more precise way. The idea is not to wallow or ruminate but to use precise words to activate the prefrontal region. Of course with practice we become more skilled and are better able to respond to our feelings less reactively and think more clearly and creatively.
There are many emotional vocabulary lists online. Susan David’s list from her book ‘Emotional Agility’ is a good list to start with.