If you're feeling sad or angry, then you need to talk about your feelings with someone, for a new study has found that doing so really will help you feel better.
The study found that talking things over with a therapist, or a pal, or even putting your feelings down on paper, produces a therapeutic effect in the brain, thereby helping us feel better.
Psychologists at UCLA, led by Dr Matthew D. Lieberman, conducted the new brain imaging study.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger.
Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can't even see them.
And, they have now found that seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face changes our brain response.
"When you attach the word 'angry,' you see a decreased response in the amygdala," said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study was conducted on thirty people, 18 women and 12 men between ages of 18 and 36, who viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as "angry" and "fearful," and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names, such as "Harry" and "Sally," and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.
The findings showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labelled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behaviour and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.
"What we're suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions -labelling emotions - that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for," Lieberman said.
If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the person to talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained. These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.
Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful, Lieberman said.
"If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it's because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better," Lieberman said.
"People don't do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you're feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn't work that way. If you know you're trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn't work - self-deception is difficult. Because labelling your feelings doesn't require you to want to feel better, it doesn't have this problem," he said.