Want a Simple Way To Calm Yourself? Describe Your Emotion in One or Two Words.

Over the weekend, I read David Rock’s very interesting book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

One strategy particularly struck me: if you’re feeling a negative emotion, you can work to reduce it by labeling it in one or two words. Note, however, that thinking or talking at length about the emotional state tends to intensify it — while simply observing and labeling it helps to quell it.

I do this myself, instinctively. I find myself thinking, “I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m frazzled” or “I’m feeling defensive” — and it’s odd how calming it is. Just putting a label on a feeling helps me to master it.

For those who enjoy reading about what’s happening in their right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and elsewhere, Rock explains how brain function accounts for this phenomenon.

How about you? Have you ever tried a strategy like this — and did it work?

  • CAM

    Under stress. Thanks, I feel better. Also doing something about the stress, no matter how small, helps relieve it.

  • diana

    this is such a great book – I think I will reread it.

  • Margaret

    Overwhelmed. One word does it all.

  • Bkd

    It’s incredible how often reading your blog posts can improve my quality of life. I have never tried to label my feelings to address them, and it made a palpable difference just now in how I felt. What a great strategy! Easy, and effective! Also, your recent post about taking discipline to undertake pleasurable activities named a phenomenon I’ve wondered about for years. Knowing it isn’t just me is a game changer. I can now just assume that I need to apply discipline to ensure I have fun, instead of spending energy trying to figure out what the heck is wrong with me for never choosing to do fun stuff.

    Thank you! You’re fabulous!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work resonates with you.

  • mellormagic67

    I suffered stress-induced state just trying to pronounce ‘ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.’
    As for “Note, however, that thinking or talking at length about the emotional state tends to intensify it — while simply observing and labeling it helps to quell it”…That just shot the rationale of all my many years of therapy. To think…All I had to do was name it!!!

  • Daphne

    Gretchen, I was DELIGHTED to read your post as it affirms what I’ve learnt myself. This is something I teach when I train executives. When they take turns to each put a word to their feelings, the whole group relaxes and calms down. I admire the way you write about it so simply and succinctly. Thanks for this post!

  • Connie
  • NancyM

    So I spent the day expressing my emotions at length. So now I will just label it. “Vulnerable”

  • Anna

    Got the book!

  • Bridget

    Today I feel sad. And labeling it for me usually doesn’t help. 🙁 Talking about it with a trusted friend does.

  • HEHink

    I think this fits with what you have written about “Identify the problem.” At times we can be upset or agitated and we don’t quite know why, until we go deeper and acknowledge that we’re angry/sad/scared/you name it. Once we label the actual feeling, we can decide what, if anything, we need to do about it. Maybe just labeling it calms us down enough to allow us to get on with our day. Or, maybe we do need to take extra steps like talking with a friend, going for a walk, reading a book, etc. to boost our mood and get back on track.

    I also feel that labeling any emotion, positive or negative, helps us to be present in the moment, which in itself contributes to happiness.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great point. Rock also talks about how to help someone else by helping them frame the problem in a simple sentence – which is exactly “Identify the problem” Interesting to hear the mechanics of why this works.

      • HEHink

        I’ll add Rock’s book to my reading list. I do enjoy learning how the brain works, and would love to see if this and some of the other strategies could be taught/applied to some of my students.

  • Mohammad

    Submit yourself to the Allmighty God. Every thing happening around this universe is been controlled by him alone. Happiness and peace of heart come from him and given to those who obey as per his instructions.

  • Deanne

    Yes! Particularly when I’m feeling anxious, I say to myself “Oh, I’m just feeling anxious. I’ve felt this way before.” It helps to put the emotion in perspective. The feeling isn’t always the reality, the feeling is just part of how we experience the world.

  • Susan

    Post very timely!! I am fighting myself about getting things done. I have tried being reasonable, tried being firm, tried being kind and forgiving, tried loads of approaches and nothing has worked with a stubborn, stubborn part of myself that is just saying ‘No, don’t want to!!!!’ This is very tiring, frustrating and exasperating!!! Have to come recognise that I am not good an naming my emotions – does the book give any suggestions as to how to connect to oneself? Guess if I had to name one now it would be ANGER.

  • peninith1

    Interesting. I think this is one of the things I learned from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He recommends we greet our emotions and ‘habit energies’–patterns we otherwise might not recognize as passing phenomena, and mistake them for our essential selves. “Hello, my habit energy!” “Hello, my anger . . worry . . sadness” When you have greeted this well known visitor, it seems easier to regard its presence as a passing thing, and let it pass!

  • Anonymous for now

    I found myself doing this exact strategy this weekend. My parents (who have been married for 35 years) just informed me and my sisters that they are divorcing due to infedelity on my father’s part. Talk about experiencing a monsoon of emotions in 5 seconds. Finally, I realized there is only one that I was feeling: anger. I am angry at my father. Just acknowleding a single emotion so simplistically has helped me to calm down and cope with the situation.

  • S.H.

    I’ve been thinking about the subject of venting & catharsis a lot as a result of a big fall out with my best friend of 23 years. We all want to hear “Yes! I would feel the same way! Get ’em!” in response to our venting. She was venting about me and got caught at it by a one year old handing me her cell phone as she received a reply to her vent. This taught me a valuable lesson. I will not participate negatively in venting. I will let a reaction go by not giving life to it. I will stop discussing things to death until I’m at peace with it. I will find a more internal way (writing, resting, baking) to allow time to get me past something. That text could have easily occurred in reverse. I would want to do that to someone and I certainly hated having it done to me. If she and I were better practiced at calming, we might still be speaking to each other.

  • Michael

    Now you’re a meditator, even if you don’t meditate!

  • liza

    I definitely notice this when dealing with my 3 year old. If I say to her “I’m feeling angry and I don’t want to yell” it usually calms me down enough to react appropriately and rationally. It is also what many parenting books suggest when dealing with emotional little ones, helping them to label their emotions when they haven’t learned to communicate the emotions themselves.

    • lady brett

      this reminds me of one of my new favorite kid books: “happy hippo, angry duck” in which each emotion is given to a certain animal. i don’t know if it’s helped our kids any (i mean, they love it, but i think they’re a little young for the message), but it helps me and my wife immensely!

      (because, really, how can you say “grumpy as a moose” without being a little less grumpy for it?)

  • David

    Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,

    For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

    John Donne write this (in The Triple Fool) I’ve used it for years

  • Oh gosh yes. Whenever I have a problem at home, I just tell my boyfriend “I’m feeling stabby,” and I find that it clears right up. 😛

  • Try this slight variation (taken from something I read somewhere about mindfulness). Instead of saying “I’m anxious” (or whatever the feeling is at the moment) say “there’s an anxious feeling” or “having an anxious feeling.” This can help you view the emotion objectively so you can detach somewhat and observe the stream of thoughts and feelings, instead of letting the self become one with those thoughts and feelings. Just the act of labeling the feeling enables the mind to move on and focus on other things.

  • Definitely! Labeling gives you some distance from the emotion so it is easier to cope with.

  • I’ve always done the complete opposite… Seems like there’s a new habit on the block for me to learn! I’ll try it next time, but I can’t comment on whether it works for now (I’d be naive to say that it didn’t) – but thank you sharing! 🙂

  • I find the best way to calm myself down is listen to encouraging worship music or to simply talk to myself and you would a little child saying, “It will be alright. It will be OK. It’s just a matter of time until everything works out.”

    This gives me permission to feel what I feel but not despair that the negative emotion/situation will last.

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders