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Being Strong And Silent, Or Meek And Mild, May Turn You Weak And Wild

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

Grrr Is it good to suppress or hide your feelings? Perhaps sometimes, but certainly not always, because voicing them seems to activate the brain's braking system and calm down the emotional response. I have blogged about labeling the affect in the past, but was reminded of that process's value when reading the article "The Brain’s Braking System (and how to ‘use your words’ to tap into it)" [pdf].

In the article, neuroscientist Matt Lieberman takes a look at self-control of several kinds: emotional, motor, perspective-taking, cognitive, and financial. He says all these kinds of self-control involve the same part of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC), which he calls the "brain's braking system." An interesting point: Because of the RVLPFC commonality, when we engage in one kind of self-control, that braking system may cause other kinds of self-control to kick in, too.

Lieberman then writes that naming your feelings (labeling your affect) can regulate your emotions.

The affect labeling data suggests that putting feelings into words is a form of emotion regulation. The problem with this account is that affect labeling does not feel like emotion regulation. When you try to suppress your emotions you know you are doing it – it is quite conscious. Although people sometimes put their feelings into words in order to generate new insights and improve their emotional well-being, we often put our feelings into words without any expectation that mere affect labeling will have an emotional benefit.

Can you improve your ability to put feelings into words in order to regulate them? Although more research is being done by Lieberman, results so far seem to indicate that practicing mindfulness meditation can make that ability sharper. Another good addition to the growing list of benefits of mindfulness

He concludes:

We have … demonstrated evidence suggesting that putting feelings into words serves as an unexpected gateway into the brain’s braking system, setting self-control processes in motion without the individual intentionally trying to engage in self-control. …[W]e have found some promising evidence that people can strengthen the impact of putting feelings into words through mindful meditative practice. … The fact that mindfulness training may produce benefits in no way means that this is the only route or the best route towards improving the functioning of this process. Nevertheless, its important to find out that this process is malleable allowing for future investigations to examine other ways in which the brain’s braking system can be made to work to our benefit.

When I work with people in any capacity, I teach them this tool of labeling their affect. Many, many have benefited by better regulating their emotions. I use this technique all the time myself, too. Do you?


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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