"Name it to Tame it": How Naming Our Emotions Soothes the Brain
There seem to be two sides of the spectrum of how humans experience emotions: our emotions drive our lives, and we feel totally controlled by the ups and downs of our emotional roller coaster, or we have become exceptionally skilled at controlling our feelings by ignoring and suppressing them, burying them deep down below layers of self-protection. Instead, we want to cultivate a middle ground where we respect our feelings and heed their warnings that something significant is happening around us and in us. They are warning lights on our dashboard, saying we would do well to check under the hood. We do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss and diminish our feelings, distract ourselves or deny what is really going on. When we respect our feelings we give ourselves the chance to respond with kindness and compassion, and then make a plan of what to do next.
Dan Siegel is famous for developing the phrase, “Name it to Tame it”*, which provides such wonderful insight into how our brains work. When we are able to attach words to our sensations, expressing outwardly what is happening inwardly, the brain actually soothes itself. We bring the logical thinking part of the brain (the frontal cortex) online and allow it to soothe some of the response from the emotionally responsive part of the brain (the amygdala). This is a simplification of our neurological processes but hopefully helpful as we learn to respect and work with our inner world of thoughts and feelings.
Here are some questions** you can ask yourself to begin to be curious about your emotions:
1. What words would describe my feelings right now?
2. How does my body feel; are there any sensations that I notice?
3. Are there any phrases or thoughts that come into my head, either about myself, others, the world?
4. Do I judge myself for certain emotions that are coming up, labeling them as “bad” or “shameful” emotions?
5. Is there a word picture that could help describe my inner life? A tornado? A rolling sea with ups and downs? A storage unit that hasn’t been opened in years? A pot of water that is slowly beginning to boil over?
I believe that our emotions can be a gift to us that allow us to connect with our experiences, with others, and with the world at large. At their very best, they can tip us off about things that don’t feel right in the world, injustice that is present, and call us to something better. Let us learn to feel and respect our emotions and then integrate them into their proper place in our lives.
*The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel
**Questions adapted from Mind Over Mood (Second Edition): Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a frequently used model to help understand our problems and develop coping strategies and tools for managing emotions, rather than being ruled by them. I find this model allows us to work with feelings in a wholistic manner, where we pay attention to our physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours, as well as the environment around us. All of these elements work together to influence our inner world. CBT teaches us how changing even one of these elements can impact your inner process, provide relief or shift your perspective.
If you would like to discuss this further and move forward on your own journey to emotional health, please don't hesitate to reach out!