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Calm yourself: Write in a diary

DiaryIn what British journalists have gamely nicknamed "the Bridget Jones effect," a UCLA psychology professor has shown that working out negative emotions in a diary can actually trick your brain into feeling better.

Matthew Lieberman, an associate professor in the psychology department, joined other researchers in running a series of experiments using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show that analyzing and labeling bad feelings seems to trip an emotion-regulating region of the brain, muffling and even reducing output from the emotion centers.

"It's initiating an emotion-regulation process that the person usually isn't even aware of," Lieberman explained. "The research indicates that if you are writing in a diary or talking to a friend about your feelings, it's often going to be beneficial."

Matthew LiebermanLieberman described his conclusions at the Feb. 14 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He extrapolated that even teens writing bad poetry are engaging in this unconscious emotional regulation. But there's an important caveat to the so-called Bridget Jones effect, he added. Simply wallowing in a bad experience won't calm anyone down.

"I don't have data on this, but I suspect it depends a lot on how you express your feelings," Lieberman said. "It will be more helpful to make it abstract and analyze it, than if you are vividly reliving every sensory detail. Reliving the experience that way will just turn on the same brain processes that made it distressing in the first place."

Lieberman's experiments included showing people photos of emotional faces — angry, scared, etc. — while taking fMRIs of their brain. Test subjects saw one face, and were asked to choose from one of two other emotional faces to match similar emotions — angry faces with angry faces, scared faces with scared. The fMRI images showed that emotion centers in their brains flared up when they saw just the faces. However, when the subjects were asked to pick one of two words to label the faces — angry or scared, for example — this activated the region of their brains involved in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. The fMRI images showed that labeling simultaneously reduced activity in the brain's emotion centers, Lieberman said.

The study faced critiques after a first round of research. What if it was the act of pasting on a label that calmed people down, not the identification of the emotion? Or what if the only reason people using labels seemed calmer was because seeing a trio of emotional faces made people more upset than seeing just one face and two labels? So Lieberman and his fellow researchers added more tests to confirm their conclusions.
They found that labeling emotional faces with names — i.e., Samuel for male faces, Helen for female faces — lacked the same calming effect as emotion labels, proving that labeling with any old word wouldn't do. They also found that simply looking at one emotional face without any matching or labeling activities left subjects more wound up than the test of matching two out of three emotional faces, indicating that seeing more faces did not skew participants' emotional responses. All the researchers' tests showed that people who labeled the faces with matching negative words showed significantly more brain-calming activity. A sample of the displays from the experiments is pictured below.
Affect labeling: Lieberman research
"The idea that putting feelings into words helps to dampen those feelings is hundreds of years old, if not older," Lieberman said. "But it's only in the last few decades that anyone's really looked into why. It has to do with the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — that's the same region that, if I tell you not to think about white bears or something, it gets activated trying to tamp down the thoughts of white bears that immediately occur to you. Or if you're distressed and I ask you to try to calm down, that region activates."

The bad news is that labeling works with positive feelings, too — articulating positive emotions dulls the joy they bring. "But that can be a good thing if the positive feelings are feelings you are trying to control, like cravings for drugs," Lieberman said.

Labeling emotions also has a lasting effect. In another study by Lieberman, people with a moderate fear of spiders were exposed to repeated images of the creepy-crawlies. Half saw only the photos, while the other half saw the photos emblazoned with negative words. A week later, second exposure to the spider photos — this time without labels for anyone — found the labeling group's emotional responses to the spiders had declined more than the other group's.

Lieberman also noted a separate study at the University of Austin, in which people were asked to keep a diary for four days addressing a traumatic experience. The participants were later found to have visited the doctor less over the next six months compared to a control group asked to keep a four-day journal about neutral experiences.

All of this has not driven Lieberman to keep a diary of his own, despite the apparent benefits, he said.

"People with two-year-old sons rarely have time for writing in a diary," he added. "When I was younger, I certainly wrote bad lyrics for a band that I was in. I don't remember noticing the effects, but I suspect they were there. Because that's the point — people don't notice it, but they're effectively regulating their own emotions."
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