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Acknowledging Feelings

I try to avoid thumbing through women’s magazines, but sometimes when I don’t have a book handy, I succumb. Occasionally, I find an irresistible tidbit of information that makes slogging through the ads and beauty tips worthwhile. For example, in the February issue of Allure, there’s a brief column on emotions that reinforces what I’ve always known in my gut and through therapeutic experience.

The column summarizes the findings of a study on emotions, concluding that “Not (ital mine) acknowledging a feeling stimulates emotional arousal in the brain.” In this experiment, two groups of people viewed images of faces along with two descriptive words below each picture. One word described the facial expression and the other word was neutral. Brain scans showed that when the volunteers paired the neutral word with an expressive face, the amygdala—the alarm center of the brain—showed increased activity. However, when they identified the feeling word associated with the face, the amygdala stayed relatively calm, cool, and collected, and activity escalated in the part of the brain associated with self-restraint, our frontal lobes.

So it would seem that describing feelings (by mentally acknowledging and identifying them) may actually inhibit emotional flare-ups. Said another way, feeling de-powers emotions. Matthew D. Lieberman, associate professor of psychology at UCLA, explains the study’s conclusions by saying that “describing feelings may be a way of hitting the brakes on your emotional responses” and curbing impulsive behavior. This finding underscores what I’m always telling clients, students, and readers: that it is far better to connect with feelings to de-power them than to ignore them and end up acting them out.

The bulk of work around recovering from an eating disorder is feelings’ work. Yeah, bad habits and ingrained patterns of behavior need to change, but the major transformation is emotional and cognitive. When thinking changes, feelings follow suit and that’s what enables you to act more appropriately around food. A general habit of suppressing (consciously ignoring/avoiding) or repressing (unconsciously ignoring/avoiding) emotions is unhealthy, whether you have eating problems or not. Now there is evidence why—the very act of moving towards feelings generates self-restraint. Paradoxically, connecting to and acknowledging feelings actually helps to discharge energy and feel less intensely. Read more about emotions and eating in my Food and Feelings Workbook—A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health.