Have you ever struggled to understand or express your emotions? If you have, you are not alone. There are numerous factors that can make it difficult to express emotions. For many, family culture or societal expectations have conditioned us to suppress strong emotions. And others have never learned the language necessary to accurately describe and address emotions. Sometimes our emotions just seem like a blur, leaving us unsure of what we feel and confused why we reacted the way we did. Learning to identify emotions, whether positive or negative, is the first step in being able to explore and resolve the emotions we experience.
“Many of us have never learned the language necessary to describe our emotions.”
First, let’s examine the physiology: Emotional responses to stimuli are a basic brain function. When we experience something, our senses take in information to our brain where it is rapidly interpreted. There are multiple brain systems associated with the physiological processing of emotions. The limbic system is the region of the brain strongly associated with emotions and memory. Various processes within the limbic system control the body’s physiological, physical, and emotional responses. The brain categorizes emotions as pleasant or unpleasant, and, depending on how emotions are grouped, the body then releases neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine, causing changes in physical and mental responses.[i] In addition to the limbic system, the autonomic nervous system, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and reticular activating system are all involved in bodily responses to emotional cues, such as regulating breathing, controlling endocrine glands, conserving energy, and maintaining wakefulness, to name a few functions.
In short, our brain experiences emotions based on both internal and external stimuli. The way those experiences are interpreted (based on thoughts and beliefs) will determine which emotion is felt.
Even though our emotions result from our thoughts and beliefs, it is still very helpful to be able to identify and describe our emotions. So, what steps can you take to do this? Here are some ideas:
If you’re having a hard time naming your emotion, remember that emotions are usually identified with a single word, such as “angry,” “anxious,” or “ashamed.” If you need more than one word to describe something, you’re probably expressing a thought as opposed to an emotion. Thoughts are anything happening in your brain that can be put into words, such as ideas, memories, and beliefs.
Also, given the amount of words used to describe what we feel, it’s often helpful to look at a list of emotions, such as Paul Ekman’s five main categories, and some examples of each one:
Let’s say you’re at a social gathering speaking with an opinionated former coworker. As you speak with him, this thought crosses your mind, “I feel like he is rude and that he is insulting me.” The “I feel like,” in reality, is representing your belief/thought that he is being rude and insulting. This belief could make you feel, for example, irritation and embarrassment. It’s important to separate beliefs from emotions. Emotion is a consequence of your beliefs.
Consider changes in how your body feels. Each set of emotions will have a physiological response unique to you. That tension in your neck could be an indicator that you’re stressed; that faster heart beat might be a sign of nervousness; those flushed cheeks may signal embarrassment; that knot in your stomach could show dread of the unknown... or anything, really.
The Oxford dictionary defines self-awareness as a “conscious knowledge of one's own character, feelings, motives, and desires.” Ask yourself what your likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses are; know your preferences and desires; be honest with yourself and others; check your facts and perceptions; behave in a way that is congruent to your principles and values so that your emotions can adjust accordingly.
First take a look at your actions, then try to remember what you were thinking that led you to that behavior, and lastly, ask the question, “How does thinking like that make me feel?” Hint: use the list of emotions. Here are a couple examples.
Example 1: Action - socially isolating. Thought - “There is too much happening and I can’t handle it. I’m going to grab my food and leave before someone talks to me.” How does it make me feel when I think this? I am likely feeling fear or anxiety.
Example 2: Action - verbally lashing out. Thought - “He is such a terrible person! He has no right to get away with that!” When I examine the event and the thought against the list of emotions above, I am able to see that I likely was experiencing a combination of disgust and anger. I could even use the specific emotions of horrified, loathing, mad, and irritated.
Talking to a trusted friend about what’s upsetting you can not only help you clarify your thoughts and emotions, but also give you a different perspective on how you’re doing. When you’re finding it hard to think objectively when flooded by emotions, people that know you and are witnessing your reactions might be able to see what’s coming before you do. For example, if someone points out that you seemed quiet and distant that morning, this feedback is a sign that you should start paying more attention to how you feel and catch that emotion before it escalates.
Do you have a tendency to respond the same way every time you are faced by a certain situation? Perhaps you get frustrated every time you come home and find the door locked, even though you know your family is home. This irritation may cause you to pound on the door or make snarky comments. Hold on! This happens routinely? If so, you can likely begin to recognize, pinpoint, and label emotions associated with your habitual cycles.
The scriptures say in Psalm 139:23 “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (NIV). If you’re a Christian believer, or are open to developing your spirituality, you can use the same strategy the shepherd boy, David, used. He didn’t rely on himself to understand his faulty brain mechanisms, but he asked God, the one who knows even how many hairs we have on our head, to show him what was going on in his mind and heart. He prayed and meditated upon God’s word and consequently became more conscious of who he truly was.
Changing the way you think can make a difference in what emotions you experience
“Your thoughts are the guiding forces behind how you feel.”
Your thoughts are the guiding forces behind how you feel. As for your emotions, they will give you good clues to assess what kind of thoughts you are having. If your emotions are so intense (i.e. depression or panic) that they keep you from functioning appropriately in day-to-day life, then you can suspect that your thoughts are not helping you and require further investigation. Once you are aware of both your thoughts and emotions, you then have the power to choose and change how you feel and behave.
Remember, behavioral responses should be led by accurate reasoning rather than by your feelings. (Learn more about rational thinking in this article about cognitive behavioral therapy). As you understand and change your thinking to be more true, accurate, and helpful, you will experience different, often healthier or at least less intense emotions (i.e. some sadness or mild nervousness).
In conclusion, knowing and understanding your emotions are two of the five components of emotional intelligence. Identifying and appropriately expressing emotions can help us work toward a healthy understanding of our thoughts and beliefs. As you develop emotional understanding, you will be better able to control your impulses and your emotions. Through the practical steps outlined in this article, you can begin improving your emotional intelligence. As you invest yourself into knowing and understanding your emotions, be prepared to experience greater success, increased happiness, and improved relationships.
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[i] Kumar, A., Rinwa, P., Kaur, G., & Machawal, L. (2013). Stress: Neurobiology, consequences and management. Journal of pharmacy & bioallied sciences, 5(2), 91–97. https://doi.org/10.4103/0975-7406.111818
[ii] Raypole, C. (2019). List of Emotions: 54 Ways to Say What You're Feeling. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/list-of-emotions