Mindfulness physical therapy, pain management, rehabilitation

Affective Labeling Diminishes Amygdala Response to Negative Images

Affective labeling, or putting feelings into words, is thought to attenuate negative emotional experiences. In a study by Lieberman and colleagues, subjects underwent fMRI scans while they performed different tasks in response to emotionally evocative facial images.1 They (1) observed the facial image without making a response, (2) chose the correct affective label (e.g. angry, frightened, happy, etc.) from a pair of words displayed below the facial image, (3) chose a gender appropriate name from two names displayed below the facial image, (4) chose a face expressing the same emotion from a pair of faces displayed below the primary facial image and (5) chose a face from an additional pair of faces that was the same gender as the primary facial image.1 In addition, subjects were shown a shape and chose a matching shape from an additional pair of shapes displayed below the primary shape. In the trials depicting a facial expression, 80% depicted fear or anger and 20% depicted happiness or surprise.

Results indicated that affective labeling, relative to other response tasks, diminished amygdala activity elicited by negative emotional images. Affective labeling also produced increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). RVLPFC and amygdala activity were inversely correlated, a relationship mediated by activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. The authors suggest that affective labeling may diminish emotional reactivity via a RVLPFC → MPFC → amygdala pathway.

Affective labeling of unpleasant emotions is a mindfulness practice. When an unpleasant emotion arises, instructions are to observe the emotion with acceptance, friendliness and without reactivity. The practitioner can observe the immediate experience of the emotion without a label. However, labeling an emotion can also be employed. For example, a practitioner can acknowledge, “I am aware I am experiencing sadness” or simply “sadness.” In addition, the experience can be used to gain insight into what all human beings experience: “This is what it is like to be a human being and experience sadness.” Although further research is needed, this study by Lieberman demonstrates a plausible neuropathway by which the practice of affective labeling of an unpleasant emotion, common in mindfulness training, could engage brain areas involved in the cognitive modulation of emotional information.

1Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, et al. Putting feelings into words: Affective labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007 May;18(5):421-8.