Name it to tame it

The feelings wheel is a favorite tool of counselors. They often use it with clients in order to help them put words to the big emotions they’re experiencing.

“Name it to tame it.”

Dr. Dan Siegel coined this term to help children manage big feelings that overwhelm them. The idea is beautifully basic: name the emotion you feel while you’re experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety. It’s also a phrase that our therapists love to use with clients during sessions.

And that’s because it really does help. Here’s why.

Just noticing an emotion and naming it can reduce those feelings significantly (they say up to 50%!). It’s a simple technique suited well for kids. But often, simple is brilliant for grownups too, especially when we’re under duress. Here’s why it works:

By observing and labeling an emotion, we gain some distance from it. Oh hey, sadness, I see you.

We can acknowledge it without BEING that emotion. Naming creates space. And that space reduces the strong responses we have about experiencing that emotion.

But how does it work? We look at what the brain is doing:

Imagine that instead of naming the emotion, we ignore it. Emotional responses are part of being human. Yet if we don’t acknowledge them, they don’t diminish. If only it were that easy, eh?

Instead, those feelings gain more power. The part of our brain that warns us of impending danger (the amygdala) sounds an alarm. Now, that’s useful if zombies are chasing you.

However, this reaction is not so helpful if our brain causes an intense reaction when something upsetting happens in everyday life. Here’s where we get to become the tamer.

Naming that emotion hits the pause button for our brain. Choosing our words and breathing deeply will kickstart another part of our brain: the frontal lobe. It can make sense of the situation. It allows us to choose how to react. Now, you might be thinking that this all makes sense. But you’re not quite sure how to make it work. That’s okay, we’ve got you. This is how you try it: The next time you have a “freaking out” moment, observe how your body responds. Is it tensing up? Okay, noted.

Then ask yourself what emotion you’re feeling as you take a big breath in. Breathe out, saying the emotion out loud. Cycle through this:

Deep, slow breaths.

Name those emotions you notice: Sad, sad, sad. Angry. Angry.

Keep breathing. Keep naming.

While naming those emotions you notice, your mind and body will begin to get in tune. Then you can move away from a spiral of overwhelming feelings. Instead, you’ll regain your balance.

Name it to tame it. You’ll likely calm down, gain clarity, and feel better.