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Name It to Tame It: Label Your Emotions to Overcome Negative Thoughts

Name It to Tame It is a simple, science-backed technique you can use to calm spiraling negative thoughts or intense emotions like fear, rage, or anxiety.

Note: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions and is not a substitute for consulting with your personal healthcare professionals.

We’ve all had the experience of having such strong emotions that we feel totally out of control. Something happens, or someone says something, and we instantly react. Our heart rate goes up. We get tunnel vision. We can’t think or communicate clearly, and we often respond impulsively.

Whether it’s fear, rage, anxiety, or spiraling negative thoughts—in moments like these, it feels less like we’re experiencing emotions and more like we are the emotions. It’s difficult to see our way out of the chaos and drama.

A simple practice called Name It to Tame It can help.

What is Name It to Tame It?

Name It to Tame It is a technique that involves noticing and labeling emotions as they’re happening. Identifying an intense emotion (“naming”) has the effect of reducing the stress and anxiety (“taming”) in the brain and the body that that emotion is causing.

In addition to in-the-moment relief, this practice also strengthens our capacity over time to be with big emotions when they arise, without getting swept up in them.

This technique was first identified by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist, writer, and professor who is also the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

Dr. Siegel has spent decades studying the effects of mindful practices on our brains and is a well-known authority on child development, attachment, and parenting.

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How Does Name It to Tame It Work?

Drawing on established research, Dr. Siegel understood that labeling what we’re feeling isn’t just a psychological trick. It’s a tool that has physiological effects on our brains and bodies.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that’s associated with higher cognitive functions like reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, creativity, and impulse control. Below the cortex is the limbic area and the brain stem. These are very old circuits in our brains, responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response, emotion, and motivation.

Both of these areas—cortical and subcortical—are of course necessary for full human functioning. Sometimes the “negative” emotions (like fear) generated by the limbic system are exactly what we need to be aware of threats or to escape a dangerous situation.

But this ancient, primal area of our brains can also overreact to situations that don’t warrant a fight/flight response, flooding our bodies with stress hormones and causing us to fly off the handle or spiral into catastrophic thinking.

Honestly naming our emotional states re-activates the prefrontal cortex. It brings that higher-level processing back online. In this video, Dr. Siegel explained that the action of consciously labeling intense emotions initiates a physical response, too: it signals the brain to send soothing neurotransmitters to our amygdala and the brain’s emotional centers, calming our bodies and minds, and helping us feel more in control.

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How to Handle Strong Emotions

Practicing this technique effectively involves being aware of your body, speaking compassionately to yourself, and using deep, slow breathing.

When you think of a typical cycle of reactive thoughts, it might go like this:

  1. Something happens
  2. Your body responds: tension, rapid heart rate, faster breathing
  3. You might have thoughts like, “This is unbelievable!” / “How could they do this?” / “This isn't fair!”
  4. You feel angry, frustrated, rejected, humiliated, afraid, etc.
  5. If you’re trying to stop or deny the emotion, you might speak to yourself in reprimanding ways: “What’s wrong with you?” / “Get ahold of yourself!”—which doesn’t work
  6. Your body responds with more tension and stress hormones
  7. You act out physically or have an emotional outburst

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To gently interrupt this cycle, you initiate Name It to Tame It right after you notice your body’s first response. It might look like this:

  1. You notice what your body is telling you: that you’re feeling angry, afraid, sad, etc.—and you take a deep, slow breath in
  2. You recognize the fact that this situation is upsetting you—without reprimanding yourself—and you slowly exhale
  3. You honestly name what you’re feeling: e.g., “anger, anger, anger” or “fear, fear, fear”—and you take a deep, slow breath in
  4. Your notice your body slowly calming itself—and you exhale
  5. You keep naming and breathing until you feel your body regulating

Naming the emotions creates a kind of healthy distance between you and the reaction. You recognize an important truth: you’re experiencing an emotion, but you aren’t caught up in or controlled by it.

The Power of Understanding Our Emotions

Name It to Tame It has long-term benefits for developing a healthy and mindful relationship with what we’re feeling.

The more we practice being aware of our emotions and how we experience them in our bodies, the more we come to understand the nature of our emotions: where they come from, what triggers them, how they affect us.

We start to recognize patterns. We begin to notice the old stories that are associated with certain situations. We’re less pulled around by our experiences and reactions, trying to fight or overcome them. Instead, we start to see, with greater compassion, what our emotional responses are trying to teach us.

The Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh said of this type of practice: “Mindfulness is touching, recognizing, greeting, and embracing. It does not fight or suppress. When it recognizes anger, mindfulness says, ‘Hello there, my anger, I know you are there. I will take good care of you, don’t worry.’”

Name It to Tame It allows us to “take good care” of our intense emotions by accepting them rather than criticizing them. And paradoxically, it’s the recognition and the acceptance that makes room for the intensity to cool.

Helping Kids Learn How to Regulate Intense Emotions

Name It to Tame It is an incredibly useful skill to teach children, and it can be a wonderful tool that parents and teachers can use to help kids learn to regulate their emotions and overcome negative thoughts.

Dr. Seigel points out that one key component of using NITTI with kids is to first connect before you redirect.

We first have to acknowledge what children are feeling, using words of comfort. You might hug a child and say something like, “That sounds tough. Being a kid is hard sometimes, isn’t it?” This will signal to their bodies that they’re safe and that it’s okay to relax.

You don’t want to tell them what they’re feeling, because you want them to be able to recognize how their emotions feel in their bodies. But you can ask them what they’re noticing in their bodies, and you might offer an observation: “I wonder if you’re feeling really sad.”

When they’ve identified their strong emotion, you can walk them through the steps and breathing exercises above.

As Dr. Siegel explains, “When big, right-brain emotions are raging out of control, help your child tell the story about what's upsetting them. In doing so, he'll use his left brain to make sense of his experience and feel more in control."

Being Patient with the Process

Whether we’re 5 or 50, learning to regulate overwhelming emotions takes time, especially if our nervous systems have become dysregulated through chronic stress, anxiety, or trauma.

You're going to feel swept up sometimes. That’s just part of being human. Be gentle with yourself. Pause when you can.

Name It to Tame It allows us to become the storytellers of our emotions, rather than characters with no agency. Over time, using this technique makes it easier for us to recognize what’s happening in our body and easier for us to signal to our brain that it’s okay to relax—and that can create a whole new story.

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