The power of labels: shifting language

Words matter. How shifting our language can maximize resilience and lower stress.

The Power Of Labels: How Shifting Our Language Can Maximize Resilience And Lower Stress

Words matter. Although we have all heard this sentiment expressed countless times, there is considerable science behind the claim. In fact, Andrew Newberg (M.D.) and Mark Robert Waldman literally wrote the book, Words Can Change Your Brain. They write, “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

When it comes to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, being mindful of this phenomenon provides a simple, yet powerful technique to build and protect our resilience. While it may seem almost too inconsequential to consider, evidence supports its effectiveness.

In a fascinating study led by Dr. Michelle Craske (UCLA), the researchers recruited participants who had a spider phobia and who would have to get as close to a tarantula as they felt comfortable. In a brilliant move, participants were assigned to one of four groups. The first was told to label the emotions they felt about the spider as concretely as they could. The second group was told to think differently about the spider, using a form of reappraisal (e.g., it’s not that scary). Another group was instructed to distract themselves from the anxiety while the final group did not receive any specific instructions (they were the control group).

The results were very revealing. Individuals who were told to specifically label their emotions demonstrated more approach behaviors (e.g., were able to get closer to the spider) than any of their counterparts. They also experienced significantly lower physiological arousal, as measured by their stress response. In fact, participants who used a higher number of words associated with their fear and anxiety had the lowest amounts of physiological stress.

Another study that explored the impacts of what the researchers called “emotional clarity” (e.g., the ability to more precisely identify one’s emotional state) also found similar results. They reported that “deficits in emotional clarity were associated with symptoms of depression, social anxiety, borderline personality, binge eating, and alcohol use.” Taken together, these findings suggest that the more specific we are about our emotions, the better we can handle their effects.  Similar to the participants in this study, when we are facing a challenging situation, it is essential for us to describe it in as much detail as possible.

In my coaching work, I find another equally, if not more powerful, benefit to this approach. It provides invaluable insight into a constructive path forward.

Let’s take a simple example. Think about the difference between when someone says “I feel awful” versus “I feel lonely.” In the first case, there can be many reasons why the person feels awful. Is it due to a lack of sleep? Poor nutrition? A sense of hopelessness about the future? One or more of these reasons could explain this “awful” feeling.

In the second example, if I am feeling lonely, there are much more concrete, specific, and useful options. Perhaps I could reach out to my best friend? Call my parents? Ask a work colleague for a virtual happy hour. It could also prompt me to explore joining an online community or interest group.

We can also use this insight to provide higher quality support to our friends, colleagues, and family members. If someone tells you they feel terrible, ask follow-up questions. Ask them if they can provide more details about what they are feeling. Better yet, tell them about the results of the spider study. It will be sure to spark an intriguing conversation.

Even though we live with and in our emotions everyday, we can struggle with effectively managing them. Taking a more mindful approach to how we label our emotions can be a critical step to enhancing our resilience and overall quality of life.