What are you afraid of? What is it that turns you into a quivering mass but leaves others unmoved? It might be high places, it could be snakes, or in my case itâ€™s middle-aged men in shorts and braces but most of us have something that presses our fear buttons. If you feel that you are a slave to those fears the good news is that simply expressing your fears might actually reduce them.
This was found in a new study by researchers from UCLA but be warned, if you are arachnophobic the following description could be a touch uncomfortable.
For the study people with an established fear of spiders were asked to approach a large, live tarantula in an open container. The subjects were asked to walk closer and closer to the container and to eventually touch the spider if they could.
After this the subjects were divided into four groups. Each group sat in front of another live tarantula in an indoor setting. The first group were asked to describe the emotions they were experiencing and to label their reactions using phrases provided like, â€œIâ€™m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.â€
The second group were given more neutral phrases to express such as, â€œThat little spider canâ€™t hurt me. Iâ€™m not afraid of it.â€ In the third group subjects said something irrelevant to the experience and the fourth group did not say anything but just sat near to the spider.
A week later all of the groups came back and were asked to get closer and potentially touch the tarantula. The group who had expressed their emotions were able to get much closer to the spider on average and their hands sweated much less than those in the other three groups.
It seems then that expressing emotions, and not trying to reframe or change an experience, reduces arousal and fear. In fact, subjects who used more negative words to describe the experience did significantly better than others. Somehow labelling the experience reduces the fear. It might be that a part of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is involved because this part of the brain is involved in labelling feelings but is also involved in regulating emotional responses.
While we donâ€™t know exactly what mechanisms are driving this the advice arrived at by the researchers is good advice for living, be in the moment, allow yourself to experience whatever you are experiencing and express it, donâ€™t try to suppress it. Acceptance-based approaches in psychology emphasise honest expression of feelings. Itâ€™s not a revolutionary approach to living well, but itâ€™s a nice reminder.