We Need To Specifically Label Our Emotions: A Psychologist Shares How
We're likely not the first to tell you: Stress management is incredibly important for your health (both physically and mentally). But "stress" has become a nebulous term, so to speak. So much so, that it can be hard to discern whether you truly feel stressed versus exhausted, worried, or disappointed.
Yes, all of those emotions are different, albeit they are on a similar plane. According to Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, Ph.D., we tend to mislabel our emotions—and especially stress. More often than not, she tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, we file all the uncomfortable emotions we face under a giant umbrella of "stress," without actually understanding what they truly mean. And if we can't understand our difficult emotions, how in the world can we begin to handle them?
The question might spring on some—dare we say?—stress. But according to David, labeling your emotions correctly can leave you more equipped to deal with them. Here's exactly how to do it:
Why labeling your emotions (correctly!) is essential.
According to David, showing up to your emotions is only the first part of actually dealing with them. It's an essential part—you can't expect to effectively deal with your emotions without accepting them—but the work doesn't end there. Once you acknowledge your emotions (without a positive or negative connotation surrounding them), the next phase is to try to make sense of them. "One way to do this is by putting language around our experiences," she notes.
Let's take a deeper dive into stress, for example: "There is a world of difference between stress and disappointment, between stress and exhaustion," David says. "When you label your emotions with such a big label, it doesn't help you." What does help you, however, is identifying what is actually underlying that "stress."
The same goes for sadness: Are you feeling lonely? Underappreciated? Defeated? They're all unique emotions in their own right, and finding the right language for them is crucial in order to process them effectively. "Becoming more granular in labeling your emotion allows you to start noticing the cause of your emotion and recognizing what you need to put in place to deal with it," adds David.
How to specifically label your emotions: a quick practice.
Whenever you start to feel a difficult emotion creeping on, David offers a two-step practice in order to effectively process and deal with them.
First, try to figure out at least two other emotions you can identify with. If your initial thought is "I'm stressed," what are two other options that emulate how you're feeling in that moment? Remember to be specific and granular; that way, you'll be able to get to the root of what you're feeling rather than slapping on a giant "stress" label with no actionable ways to handle it.
Once you identify those underlying emotions, "No longer are you stuck in, 'I am stressed,'" says David. "You are 'I am exhausted, so I need greater levels of self-care.' It's very different from just 'stressed.'"
The next step for dealing with those emotions, is to discover what values the emotion is pointing to: "We tend not to have strong emotions about things we don't care about," says David, and your difficult feelings can shed light on what's important to you. For example, if you are lonely, do you yearn for social connection? Are you missing deep conversations with your partner?
David says you can even write down the emotion on a piece of paper, flip it over, and note what values you think that emotion is signaling. Think of it as a road map for what your emotions are truly trying to tell you. After all, every emotion—even the ones that make you uncomfortable—have a purpose.
Yes, accepting your emotions for what they are is crucial to learning how to deal with them. But David suggests a deeper dive in order to process them effectively: It's the combination of showing up to difficult emotions, understanding them completely, and moving toward active ways of seeking our values that makes you truly emotionally resilient.
As David notes, "You cannot begin to do any sort of moving forward or moving on until you have shown up to what is." And correctly labeling "what is" is half the battle.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.