Affect labeling, and 8 more craving brakes

Affect labeling—verbalizing your moodhelps you map out the forks in the road. And if you’ve been down that path before, it works like “brakes” on your “car.” Resistance. Friction.

Do you really want to go down the path of pleasure now and suffering later? In the moment, you might not know. But with any of the brakes in this post, you can slow down and make a better decision.

Affect labeling, and other craving brakes Pinterest pin

Why affect labeling decreases arousal

So let’s first define three psychology words.

  1. Affect – state of mind
  2. Amygdala – the area of your brain that produces the neurochemicals for fear, anxiety, and aggression
  3. Arousal – agitation or excitement of the mind

Where the science is concerned, in a study by Lieberman et al.,

“…affect labeling, compared with other ways of encoding, produces diminished responses to negative emotional images in the amygdala and other limbic regions.”

And further…

"A growing body of research has revealed that labelling an emotion (i.e. putting one's feelings into words) helps to regulate affect downwards. Thus, when one sees an angry face and attaches to it the word angry, there is a decreased response in the amygdala. The benefits of affect labelling thus go beyond whatever actual insights are gained by knowing what one feels, because the act of labelling itself actually decreases arousal." - Leslie Greenberg, Emotion-Based Therapy

In other words, when you’re angry, say “I’m feeling angry right now.” Or “I’m feeling depressed,” “stressed out,” “lonely,” or whatever “right now.” And just that alone decreases amygdala response. Repeat as necessary, FEEL IT, and breathe.

Then do the “leaves on a stream” exercise from this future article!

Yes, I know it sounds silly. But the researchers say “it is unclear whether the linguistic component of affective labeling is critical,” and I haven’t found any research that proves it is. So you have to speak, not just think.

Other important things to note:

  • this effect applies regardless of the emotion, even positive ones
  • searching for an exact, poetic, or otherwise impressive word dampens the effect

Affect labeling works in the same way website blocker Pluckeye works, or putting your phone in a different room. Just the little bump of a delay makes weaker cravings dissipate. For stronger cravings, though, I suggest trying one of the below strategies.

Alternative brakes to affect labeling


Take a long, slow, deep breath in through your nose and into bottoms of your lungs. Then exhale for longer than you breathed in to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slow your heart rate. The slowing exhale is the most important. As I say at the bottom of my newsletter, the Tamer’s Guild, “In for 3, out for 6.”

Optionally, close your eyes, stand up and leave the area, and/or sit on your hands. I’ve tried all these things. As well as cravings, they also slow down or stop:

  • Stress or anxiety… to an extent
  • “Blood flow” when you think about porn
  • ANY train of thought, from a song stuck in your head to a cycle of worry
  • Fear, hate, or outrage caused by news

Talk to your shadow

Like affect labeling, here, you’re talking to yourself. Or rather, part of yourself: your Shadow.

Persona, the mask; Shadow, the back of the brain

Your Shadow, as Carl Jung theorized, is the repressed part of your personality. When growing up, society and your family rewarded certain traits and punished others. Your Persona is the mask you created thus to blend in.

This is an oversimplification, but nonetheless, your Shadow sometimes takes over, typically in moments of intense emotion, like a craving.

In short, you can talk to it. And like with affect labeling, you can label it with a name and costume.

When you feel your Shadowlet’s not call him a bad guy; he’s a part of you!take over, use this method recommended by holistic therapist Catherine Lyell:

“I highly recommend you say these things out aloud in the beginning, no matter how stupid you feel!
1. ‘I can hear you’
2. ‘I know what you’re trying to do’
3. ‘You are not me’
4. ‘I’m not playing this game anymore’
5. ‘Thank you'”

Implementation intentions

"Warning: this machine starts automatically" sign. Affect labeling slows down the process.

This takes more time to set up in advance, but it has an automatic effect. In essence, it’s an “if/then” statement.

As describes it,

“Implementation intentions… seek to connect a specific future situation (an opportunity for goal attainment) with specific goal-directed behavior.”

Thus, you create an insurance policy for when you act out. And if you haven’t mapped this out in detail yet, your triggers of time, place, emotion, or immediately preceding action, it’s an automatic effect. Barely even a decision. Willpower not required. And it leaves cognitive energy for other tasks, so if you’re tired, it’s not hard to do.

“IF _______________ (trigger or wanting), THEN ________________”

not “I want to do _________….” which doesn’t inspire action because it’s vague

Implementation intentions fill the gap between intention and action. “I want to do” (______GAP______) “but…”

Some examples include:

  • If I turn on my phone when I’m lying in bed… then I’ll get up and chug a glass of cold water.
  • If I’m feeling lonely… then I’ll meditate and lean into it. (instead of scrolling through social media)
  • If my heart races at the thought of it… then I’ll breathe in for 3, out for 6 and talk a walk.

Notice these can be internal feelings or external activities. Whatever starts the cravings.

Gallo et al. proved this reduced response with a group of arachnophobic people. Researchers gave them an if/then statement for when they see a spider, namely, to look away from it and think neutral thoughts (vital note: NOT HAPPY THOUGHTSyour mind recognizes this as forced, as well as the reason for it). Their amygdalae showed less affect, and without affect labeling.

So make an if/then statement for when a craving hits, and you can stop it before it gets started.

Take the view from above

aerial shot of buildings for affect labeling purposes

This is an exercise I adapted from the Stoics’ praemeditatio malorum.

They taught to envision in your minds eye a camera zooming down from space, to the clouds, to the continent, to you. Which makes your troubles and strong emotions seem small in the scheme of things.

My adaptation is to view yourself as though from above. You can also “position the camera” in a sting-operation type angle. Whatever gets you out of your head abates your current emotional predicament.

It’s a powerful method of urge surfing, as is affect labeling and anything that “puts the brakes on your car.”

Taming Your Tech methods

Lastly, here are some others by me, which I also vetted. Add them to your strategy guide, too.

Affect labeling: conclusion

In summary, whether you use affect labeling or another method above, remember these are just brakes. They won’t “stop your car” like actual brakes. But they’re nice to have so you don’t slam into a wall, so to speak.

And motivation is important, too. Your Why is everything, hence why it’s at the bottom of the pyramid, with all the techniques over it. Whichever technique you use, you have to care to use it. Even implementation intentions requires a tiny bit of care.

So you’ve got to find Your Why and hold it close. Sometimes literally, like with a necklace or photo.

In short, give your car brakes, or cravings will take it for a joyride.

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