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Putting Feelings Into Words Eases Pain

Writing or Talking About Feelings May Lessen Pain in the Brain
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 26, 2007 -- Putting your feelings into words by talking with a therapist or writing in a journal may actually help you feel better. Not in a touchy-feely kind of way, but more like in a mind-numbing sort of way, according to a new study.
Researchers found that when people see pictures of an angry or fearful face, it triggers activity in an area of the brain known as the amygdala, which sets off a chain of biological reactions designed to protect the body in times of danger.

But when people see the same face and call it an angry face, there’s much more subdued response in the brain.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” says researcher Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, in a news release.

Instead, researchers found labeling emotions stimulated activity in another region of the brain located behind the forehead and eyes called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences and processing emotions.

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,” says Lieberman in a news release.

Putting Feelings Into Words May Help

In the study, published in Psychological Science, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to monitor brain activity in 30 volunteers who looked at a variety of pictures.

The images were of individuals making different emotional expressions, such as scared or angry. In some cases, below their faces were the words “angry” and “fearful,” and the participant had to choose which emotion described the image. In other cases, they saw two names such as Harry or Sally and they had to choose the gender-appropriate name.

The results showed that activity in the amygdala was significantly reduced when the participants were asked to identify the correct emotion. In addition, activity was stimulated in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex when they had to label the emotions.

“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” says Lieberman. “People don’t do this 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.”

  • What is your secret to sharing your feelings? Tell us about it on WebMD's Health Cafe message board.

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