Picture this, you go to the doctor’s office, diligently describe your symptoms to him and after an extended period of running tests and even consulting with fellow experts in the field, he comes back with a diagnosis saying you’re sick. No further explanation, just “sick.”
Would you let him prescribe medication for your condition? Probably not.
Now, what if I told you that a lot of us are exactly like this “doctor” in our daily lives, but probably worse because we often skip the testing and consulting part?
Don’t believe me?
Think about the last time you got “angry” at someone or something. Did you stop to examine whether this anger was more specifically rooted in disappointment, fear, impatience or even hunger?
Or, did you just run with the initial interpretation of the situation and proceed to react, probably negatively, making things even worse?
According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Berret in her book How Emotions Are Made, those that stop to reconsider and refine their feelings posses a quality known as emotional granularity.
“My lab discovered emotional granularity in the 1990s. We asked hundreds of volunteers to keep track of their emotional experiences for weeks or months. Everyone we tested used the same stock of emotion words, such as “sad” and “angry” and “afraid,” to describe their experiences. However, we found that some people used these words to refer to distinct experiences — each word represented a different emotion concept — while other people lumped these words together as a single concept meaning, roughly, “I feel miserable.” It was natural to think that people with higher emotional granularity were just better at recognizing emotional states in themselves, but our lab found that this was not what was happening. Your brain, it turns out, in a very real sense constructs your emotional states — in the blink of an eye, outside of your awareness — and people who learn diverse concepts of emotion are better equipped to create more finely tailored emotions.”
Essentially, the more you already know about the available range of feelings to choose from, the easier it is for your brain to accurately label a given circumstance, helping you to distinguish temporary exhaustion from stress and complete burnout, for instance.
This is important because how well we remedy any situation is dependent on what our personal diagnosis of said situation is.
If you labelled the melancholy that you feel when you’re isolated as sadness, you would be right, but if you went further ahead to consider the nuances and recognize that you’re not just sad – you’re lonely, you would know that you need to either call a friend or put more effort into your social life.
Your emotional granularity is thus closely tied to your vocabulary; knowing more words and how they are tied to outside factors and our internal world will naturally create a more precise verdict whenever we try to understand our emotional states.
“You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction. Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget (which is how your brain anticipates and fulfills your body’s energy needs), and your body budget determines how you feel. In a collection of scientific studies, people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings were 30 percent more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.”
Turns out, effectively dealing with our emotional fires is as simple as being able to accurately pin point where they are coming from and if you know enough, you might even realize that what you have on your hands is more cozy than hot.