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Emotional Well-Being Informed by Language

Update Date: Aug 24, 2012 10:01 AM EDT

Sociologists and linguists have long debated what is the function of language in society. More than just a mode through which we express emotions and communicate, language, some experts believe, can go so far as to dictate what and how we feel.

Herein debated is the idea that language, in all its didactic and sycophantic forms can inform not only in the literal sense but can in fact shape and limit the way we think: if there are no words for it, if we cannot express it, then it does not exist.  

Two new studies published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explore the ways in which the interaction between language and emotion influences our well-being.

In a an exposure therapy study Katharina Kircanski and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles "investigated whether verbalizing a current emotional experience, even when that experience is negative, might be an effective method for treating for people with spider phobias," according to a report released by APS.

The report explains that participants were split into experimental groups and were instructed to approach a spider over several consecutive days:

One group was told to put their feelings into words by describing their negative emotions about approaching the spider; another was asked to assess the situation by describing the spider using "emotionally neutral words." The third group was asked to talk about an unrelated topic, and the final group received no intervention."

Results showed that among all the groups, the first was the most effective in lowering their respective states of "physiological arousal." Furthermore, they were more willing than the others to approach the spider.

Researchers found that "talking it out" created a cathartic effect on the participants; they were able to relax their levels of tension and anxiety by voicing them through colorful and detailed descriptions.

Experts highly recommend talking out a situation, even if you believe that your strong enough to "get over it" or you feel like you can't tell anyone. Sometimes letting go and your vulnerability show is the best medicine.

The study also discusses our propensity to relate past occurrences in alternating present and past progressive tenses, depending on the type of memory. When we discuss a bad or painful memory we use past tense almost as reminder to ourselves that it is over (ran, jumped, yelled, etc). However when we discuss good memories we do it in past progressive or present tense (was running, was jumping, were screaming, etc.) because we do not mind reliving such memories.

For another example we can think of when someone is telling a scary story: those told in past progressive seem more immediate and, consequently, more scary.

As an experiment, try telling someone about a horrible circumstance or relate a scary story but do it in the past progressive, or harder still, in present tense, as if it is still happening. You will find that it's harder than it sounds. 

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