Imagine you’re in a yoga class. Your instructor asks you to close your eyes and begin to tune into your breath. He or she asks you to think about the breath moving through your body, to acknowledge it, and to start to deepen it. Now, notice the physical shift that happens from head to toe when you slow the breath down. This, essentially, is mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been certainly a buzzword this year, and with the rise in open conversation around mental health, in 2020 we’re excited by the prospect of this trend staying put.
After all, mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety, emotional reactivity, and depressive symptoms, according to the American Psychological Association.
Considering how prevalent the mental health awareness conversation is nowadays, it wasn’t surprising that in recent months, I’ve had pretty open communications around personal experiences with friends and acquaintances. And across various conversations, a theme arose.
I continued to hear the phrase “naming your emotions” within the context of exercises practiced in therapy and coaching sessions. And in October, when we interviewed Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma, co-authors of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the athlete’s mental journey in injury recovery, the phrase came up again.
Both in and out of the gym, the idea of naming your emotions as a mindfulness exercises to help us cope is popular so I had to ask myself, what exactly does “naming your emotions” mean?
“Naming your emotions” defined
“At the most fundamental level, most of us are not taught as kids to recognize ‘this is what it feels like when you feel sad,’ or ‘this is what it feels like when you feel happy,’” Dr. Paula Freedman, licensed clinical psychologist and writer, told me. “Maybe it’s modeled for you by example, but it’s not necessarily something your parents sit you down and teach you. That’s why a lot of times people have to learn this as an adult.”
When you give an emotion a name, just recognizing it for what it is, “is like popping a bubble,” Kuzma said. “It’s this feeling of, ‘oh I recognize that, now I can let it go,’” or at least, she continued, specificity will help you address what to do with the feeling next.
Both athletes recovering from injury and individuals working to fortify their mental health skills, naming emotions is necessary in the process of healing and simply managing daily stressors.
How to do it
Jackson Cheadle and Kuzma list an Emotion Decoder inside the book. It is an exhaustive list of types of emotions, all very nuanced. Athletes are encouraged to use the list when they are feeling stuck or upset. From the book, “Sometimes, just the act of naming a feeling provides relief, allowing you to move through it and then move on from it.”
Specificity is important, according to Kuzma. “We tend to lump feelings together as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” which she explains as hindering when we try to work through them. After all, if we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with, how can we deal with it?
Dr. Freedman uses two methods with her patients and clients regularly.
“I’ll usually have them start by dropping down into their bodies and notice sensation,” she said. “Most feelings are experienced as a physiological sensation.”
Dr. Freedman explained the difference of “open” versus “closed” in relation to how our bodies feel when we experience certain emotions.
“If you think about it, a lot of the ones that make us uncomfortable like fear, or anxiety, or worry, usually it feels like something closing up. Like do you feel your body tensing or tightening or bracing against something? Versus when you feel joy or love, you feel more openness, like a warmth or a relaxed feeling.”
But why start with the physical first? Feelings are subjective, she continued. Two people may experience the feeling of fear in very different ways. “Because emotions are not verbal, you can’t always express them perfectly that way. You can name sensations instead. “
Another tactic Dr. Freedman likes to employ in tandem to working through physical sensations, is the feelings wheel. Like the Emotion Decoder, the feelings wheel is specific, with shades of each feeling rather than just distinct different ones.
When to do it
The short answer is “all the time.” Dr. Freedman recommends setting a timer daily (or even more than once each day) to check in.
You can ask yourself questions like, “What’s going on in my body?” and “What’s my thought content like right now?” Dr. Freedman recommends. And if you’re using a feelings wheel or some other resource, you might pinpoint a word or two and ask yourself “is this a familiar feeling? and “what are some situations where I’ve experienced this before?”
The practice of naming your emotions can be done as casually as you’d like, but just like practicing mindfulness, even five minutes every day can be beneficial. And ultimately, whether the feeling you name is a messenger, signaling you to address something important going on, or it’s just something to learn to accept, the practice of growing awareness can help you identify patterns, Dr. Freedman mentioned.
“People have become afraid of their feelings, which is why there is stigma around mental health,” she said. “We’re taught we should conquer them, master them somehow. They’re just transient experiences of physiological sensations that sometimes have thoughts that go along with them, and sometimes don’t. And that’s all there is to it.”
*While you can impact your happiness, It’s important to note that depression or any other form of mental illness is something that you should talk to a trained medical professional about – especially if you’re feeling down for an extended period of time. Find a counselor, a therapist or someone else who is trained to help.