Lesson 3 of 7 - evolve a pro-grief family

Name that Feeling:
You'll Feel Better

By Julie Steenhuysen
Reuters International

Yahoo Web news, 6/20/07


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/grief/news/venting.htm

Updated 02-05-2015

      Clicking underlined links below will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.   

      This news item supports a basic premise in this nonprofit Web site - that part of healthy grief is talking to empathic listeners about reactions to significant losses (broken bonds). For more perspective, see the comments after the article, and follow selected links.

Before reading further, pause and reflect - why are you reading this? What do you need?

Peter Gerlach, MSW

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Putting feelings into words makes sadness and anger less intense, U.S. brain researchers said on Wednesday, in a finding that explains why talking to a therapist -- or even a sympathetic bartender -- often makes people feel better.

They said talking about negative feelings activates a part of the brain responsible for impulse control. "This region of the brain seems to be involved in putting on the brakes," said University of California, Los Angeles researcher Matthew Lieberman, whose study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

He and colleagues scanned the brains of 30 people -- 18 women and 12 men between 18 and 36 -- who were shown pictures of faces expressing strong emotions.

They were asked to categorize the feelings in words like sad or angry, or to choose between two gender-specific names like "Sally or Harry" that matched the face.

What they found is that when people attached a word like angry to an angry-looking face, the response in the amygdala portion of the brain that handles fear, panic and other strong emotions decreased. "This seems to dampen down the response in these basic emotional circuits in the brain -- in this case the amygdala," Lieberman said in a telephone interview.

What lights up instead is the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that controls impulses. "This is the only region of the entire brain that is more active when you choose an emotion word for the picture than when you choose a name for the picture," he said.

He said the same region of the brain has been found in prior studies to play a role in motor control. "If you are driving along and you see a yellow light, you have to inhibit one response in order to step on the brake," he said. "This same region helps to inhibit emotional responses as well."

The results may alter the traditional view of why talking about feelings helps.

"I think we all believe that by talking about our feelings, we reach deep new insights, and that understanding is what transforms us," he said.

"What we see is something that at first blush is far more trivial. By simply putting the name to an emotion, the person doesn't feel like they've come to any new insight. And yet we see this dampening response anyway."

Lieberman said while there likely are benefits to gaining enhanced understanding, talking about feelings may do something more basic. "It's not just the deep thoughts," he said. "It's something about the way we are built.

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      From clinical research and therapeutic experience with over 1,000 typical adults and some kids since 1981, I propose that incomplete grief in adults and kids is one of five major unrecognized stressors in typical troubled (low-nurturance) U.S. families - specially in divorcing biofamilies and average stepfamilies. Few lay or professional adults know the signs of incomplete grief or what to do about it.

      Lesson 3 in this site promotes healthy three-level mourning for members of any family. It proposes seven requisites for healthy grieving. One requisite is the normal need to talk about significant losses  (broken bonds), what they mean, and how the "loser" feels.

      The brain-research summary above provides a factual explanation for the idea that talking about our feelings helps to reduce our emotional intensity ("feel better"). Note several things in this summary:

  • it focuses on emotions in general, not just feelings related to mourning broken bonds (losses).

  • The summary suggests that "putting words to feelings" alters brain function and moderates  significant emotions like sadness and anger. That implies that repressing and withholding feelings prolongs (and may amplify?) personal and family stress.

      An inference is that naming emotions out loud to another person (vs. just thinking the words) promotes "impulse control." This suggests the value of (a) self-awareness, and being able to (b) identify and (c) articulate (choose words to accurately describe) various emotional responses. Implication: knowing many emotional descriptors promotes "feeling better."

      My clinical experience suggests that average adults and kids in typical low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") families often lack these three factors, which promotes the toxic effects of incomplete ("complicated") grief.

  • The article's author promotes the common harmful misconception that some emotions are "negative." I propose that emotions are neither "positive" or "negative" - they each are useful neurochemical indicators of current needs (discomforts). The way emotions are expressed can be "positive" (fulfilling personal and social needs) or "negative" (blocking or amplifying needs and stressing someone).

      Unaware people who casually label emotions like rage, deep sadness, guilt, shame, anger, hurt, frustration, and resentment as "negative" risk...

  • defensiveness, distrust, repression, withholding, and denial of these reactions;

  • ineffective communication and problem-solving, and...

  • unintentionally fostering personal and family policies that discourage healthy grief.

These lower family nurturance levels, which promotes psychological wounding - specially in minor kids.

  • An important implication: people who want to give others the gifts of a stable two-person awareness bubble and genuine empathic listening nonjudgmentally to their current emotions can increase their gifts by using accurate feeling words in their summaries back to the speaker - e.g. "You're incredibly hurt, frustrated, and angered by your Aunt's gossiping about you!"

  • Also see this related research summary reporting that women who chronically repress their thoughts and feelings in marital conflicts are at significantly higher risk of "depression," irritable bowel syndrome, and (premature) death.

 - Peter Gerlach, MSW

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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