50 Shades of Bad Mood

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet contends that the names we give things are insignificant. Labeling Romeo as a Montague or a rose as a rose is worthless, she argues. The implication is that labels are empty and meaningless.

While I would never disagree with Shakespeare, when it comes to unpleasant experiences having the ability to precisely label how you are feeling can affect how you process every day challenges.

Let me explain. Imagine having an argument with a co-worker. How would you describe your feelings afterwards? Would you say bad, and leave it at that? Or would you describe your emotions in more detail and use adjectives like: frustrated, irritated, upset, and discouraged.

According to a recent study, people who are able to differentiate how they feel at a given moment are better at regulating their emotions – they use this nuanced information to tailor a response to the situation. Psychologist call this emotional granularity. “Differentiators” are action-oriented. They feel empowered to seek solutions. Using the example above, the differentiator might decide to speak to the manager or perhaps engage in a less-heated conversation with the co-worker. As Lisa Feldman, one of the study’s authors, explained in a recent article:

This is why emotional granularity can have such influence on your well-being and health: It gives your brain more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you.

In comparison, those who struggle with emotion differentiation are more likely to feel overwhelmed and helpless. They may be more vulnerable to unhealthy or unfocused responses like binge-drinking or physical aggression. It stands to reason that are less optimistic and experience negative events as personal, pervasive and permanent.

The researchers summarize their findings as follows:

People who respond to their felt experiences with greater differentiation are more mindfully aware of their conscious state and thus find it easier to shift their attentional focus and maintain emotional stability. We speculate that when distressing feelings and bodily sensations arise, instead of letting these experiences dominate attention or dictate how to behave, high differentiators are better able to distance themselves. With this psychological distance, there is greater opportunity to direct effortful behavior toward personally valued strivings or goals.

The good news is that emotional differentiation is a skill that can be learned. By expanding our vocabulary, stressful experiences and negative emotions can be transformed into learning opportunities.

Having the ability to choose from, label and understand an array of nuanced responses – think of it as an emotional buffet table – is a gateway to greater wellbeing.

So, how do you feel after reading this post? Please don’t say, “bored.”

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman