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Name It to Tame It: Labelling Emotions to Reduce Stress & Anxiety

May 3, 2021
by Dr. Bruce Freeman, Director of Patient Experience, dentalcorp


I was so mad, I couldn’t see straight.

He was blinded by love.

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I have thought about where these phrases came from after enjoying a wonderful article titled Tame Reactive Emotions By Naming Them by Mitch Abblett. I do a lot of reading about how our brains work with respect to dealing with our emotions and I will give you the benefit of my research in the form of some quick and easy tips to bring a bit more calm to your life.

Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase, name it to tame it. Psychologist David Rock states, “when you experience significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50% by simply noticing and naming your state.” Abblett further explains, if we can see the emotion, we do not have to be the emotion. Noticing and naming our emotions helps create some distance between the emotion and the intense feelings that accompany it.

We must acknowledge our emotions as they happen. Emotions are bursts of energy within us and ignoring them gives them power. A psychologist I know, Dr. Sandra Palef, always says that feelings, not thoughts, are our guide to living and we ignore them at our peril. Picture your emotions like a balloon and every time you try to push it aside, it is filled with more and more air until it bursts. Even the slightest provocation can set you off. That is your amygdala, which can be thought of as your brain’s smoke detector, sounding the alarm. The good thing is, this part of the brain warns us of impending danger; however, it is also responsible for us unnecessarily flying off the handle. Naming an emotion allows us to pause and use our breath to help calm our physiology, taking us from a fight-or-flight state to one where the frontal lobe has a chance to kick into action and bring some sense to the situation that is spiking our blood pressure.

Breathing for a calmer state

Abblett talks of how our emotions can be like a hand in front of our face, where we are all consumed by it and unable to clearly see what is happening. Using our breath, where our exhales are longer than our inhales, takes us back into a state of relative calm where we can more clearly assess the situation. The goal of deep breathing is to stem the tide of stress hormones, so we may once again be under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing cordial interactions with others, versus the sympathetic nervous system which allows our emotions to rule the moment. Abblett’s article contains a useful exercise, outlined below.

Here’s a possible domino effect of reactive thoughts that might show up for you:

  • Event occurs 
  • Your body stiffens, clenches
  • You think, “I can’t believe this!” / “They are so wrong!” / “This shouldn’t be!” 
  • You feel, “I am angry / sad / frustrated / humiliated / etc.”
  • Your body stiffens and clenches even more
  • You decide, “I’m going to let them have it!”

And now, naming the emotion right after the body first stiffens, surges, or in some way alerts you that upset is here:

  • You think, “My body is telling me I’m angry, sad, etc.” (deep, slow breath in)
  • You recognize, “I’m having thoughts that this is upsetting.” (slow exhale out)
  • You feel, “Anger . . . anger . . . anger . . .” (deep, slow breath in)
  • Your body slows down (slow exhale out)
  • You feel, “Sad . . . sad . . . sad . . .” (deep, slow breath in)

The sequences highlight the importance, as we know from yoga, to not let the mind and body disconnect. Yoga is about linking the breath with movement, helping the mind and body to work in tandem as we prepare for meditation, where we turn our attention inward, to a single point of focus, away from the input to our five senses. The work of yoga and meditation comes into play not only while on our mats, but when we are faced with daily challenges and the choice of how to react. It is at that critical moment we have the opportunity to use our lessons from movement, breathwork and mediation to make the right choice, ensuring our minds and body are working with—not against—each other.

Yoga philosophy talks about how we are born with mental and emotional patterns known as samskaras, representing our default behaviours. Thankfully, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue as research shows we can retrain our brains. This, of course, takes time and doesn’t happen overnight.

Remember to be kind to yourself and recognize that when you feel the anger rising, you now know you have the tools to create new ways of behaving by taking a moment to label that feeling, while breathing your way to a state of calm, so you can more clearly see the situation for what it really is.


About the Author

Dr. Bruce Freeman is the Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp, helping dentists across Canada achieve clinical success that results in the best experience for their patients.

Bruce is an international lecturer on clinical orthodontics, facial pain, patient experience, and virtual surgical planning. He is the co-director of the Facial Pain Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital. He further directs the Wellness Program for dental residents at Mount Sinai Hospital, emphasizing how self-care leads to the best patient care.

Bruce is an honours graduate of the University of Toronto. He completed the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester and returned to the University of Toronto to complete his diploma in orthodontics and his Master of Science degree in temporomandibular disorders and orofacial pain. He is also a certified yoga instructor with additional training in breathing techniques, meditation, and trauma informed movement.


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