Breaking brain news. Label those feelings!

It’s called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging…or fMRI for short.

It’s very clever, revealing the activity of our brain through the blood flow. But more than clever, it’s a real friend to our wellbeing.

And one simple but helpful message from a number of recent fMRI studies is this: it’s good to give your feelings a label.


In one fMRI study, appropriately titled ‘Putting Feelings into Words’, participants viewed pictures of people experiencing different emotions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala responded to the emotions in the picture.

But when they were asked to name the emotion they saw, another part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, was activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity.

In other words, consciously recognizing the feeling and naming it helped the brain reduce its impact; it had a calming influence.

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, many of us repress difficult emotions. We imagine them to be dangerous or not allowed.

But suppressing them doesn’t make them go away as fMRI scans reveal. The brain remains aroused. So trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and often backfires. The more we ignore the feeling, the more hidden power it has over us.

But labelling the feeling makes a positive difference, calming the brain.

Perhaps it’s simply saying ‘I feel sad’ or I feel angry’ or ‘I feel abandoned.’ People can find it difficult to say these things.

Or perhaps we use symbolic language like ‘I feel like I’m lost in a jungle’ or ‘It’s like I’m drowning.’

It’s the truth of neuroscience: acknowledging and labelling an emotion in just a word or two reduces its power.

It’s also a basic tool of mindfulness: notice the feeling and name it.

After all, we can’t say goodbye to something, until we have first said hello to it. And in naming it, we say hello.