The Lasting Effect of Words on Feelings: Words May Facilitate Exposure Effects to Threatening Images

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Abstract

Previous studies have shown that mere words, particularly affective words, can dampen emotional responses. However, the effect of affective labels on emotional responding in the long term is unknown. The authors examined whether repeated exposure to aversive images would lead to more reduction in autonomic reactivity a week later if the images were exposed with single-word labels than without labels. In Experiment 1, healthy individuals were exposed to pictures of disturbing scenes with or without labels on Day 1. On Day 8, the same pictures from the previous week were exposed, this time without labels. In Experiment 2, participants were spider fearful and were exposed to pictures of spiders. In both experiments, although repeated exposure to aversive images (without labels) led to long-term attenuation of autonomic reactivity, exposure plus affective labels, but not nonaffective labels, led to more attenuation than exposure alone. Thus, affective labels may help dampen emotional reactivity in both the short and long terms. Implications for exposure therapy and translational studies are discussed.

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