Althought Therapy

How Do I Understand My Emotions?

Understanding your emotions can feel like an impossible task when you start, especially if you didn’t grow up practicing this skill. And first and foremost, this is a skill that can be developed and honed over time. So, if you don’t feel like you know how to identify your emotions, you are not alone! Most people struggle with this at first, but it gets easier and easier with practice. I like to encourage my clients to use a feelings wheel.

Understand My Emotions

What is a Feelings Wheel?

A feelings wheel is a circular diagram that contains feelings categorized by basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise. As you move outward from the center of the wheel, the emotions become more specific. For example, the basic emotion of anger can be further refined to feeling frustrated, which can in turn be specified further to feeling annoyed. Using a feelings wheel is a great way to start learning about your emotions.


How Do I Start Identifying My Emotions?

Take a moment, whether you are feeling angry, calm, or sad, and look at the feelings wheel. Read the basic emotions at the center of the wheel and see which one resonates with you. If you’re not sure which fits best, simply explore the wheel and notice which emotion word you keep returning to. Then start using that label to help connect the emotional state with a word. For example, if you are feeling angry, you might say to yourself, “I am feeling angry.” Initially, it’s best to say this privately. This builds confidence in your ability to link your emotions to words, helping you better understand the emotional state and what it feels like.

How to Identify Your Emotions in Your Body

For many people, identifying emotions through body sensations is the best way to start understanding their emotions. For others, this may require more intentional practice to be able to pinpoint where they are experiencing tension in their body.


Examples of physical sensations in the body that are associated with specific emotions:

  • Anxiety: lump in your throat, churning stomach, trembling, dry mouth, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling weak or tense
  • Anger: hot or flushed face, clenched fists or jaw, shaking, jerky body movements
  • Joy: feeling lightness in your body, warm heart, butterflies in your stomach
  • Sadness: feeling of “heartache,” heaviness in your body, tightness in your chest, fatigue, drooping face
  • Shame: hot face, lowered eyes, sunken body posture
  • Fear: dizziness, weakness in legs, goosebumps, fast breathing, and heart rate


Benefits of Understanding Your Emotions

One of the biggest benefits of understanding and being able to identify your emotions is gaining a better understanding of yourself. The more you understand yourself, the easier it will be to navigate social situations and relationships in your life. Let’s look at an example of what this means.


Imagine you come home from work and your partner is sitting on the couch relaxing while the house is a mess. Maybe your first reaction is to think that your partner is lazy. Another common next step is to accuse your partner of being lazy, which is likely to start an argument since your partner may feel defensive about the accusation. If you are able to stop and identify what you are feeling, you might realize that you initially felt angry and then frustrated by the messy house. You may have also felt annoyed that your partner was relaxing when you felt the house was messy. Now that you understand your internal emotional state, you can try talking to your partner and explain that you are feeling frustrated by the messy house. You can then make a request for your partner to help clean up. This approach allows you to identify what triggered your emotions without accusing your partner of laziness, and instead, ask for help with the issue that is truly bothering you.


Neuroscience of Emotions

The amygdala is one of the primary areas where emotions are processed in the brain. Located in the temporal lobes (left and right sides) of the brain, the amygdala is involved in the experience of anger, learning through reward and punishment, implicit memory, social communication, and emotions related to parenting and caregiving.


One of the main output signaling pathways from the amygdala leads to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, found at the base of the brain, is involved in hormone production, which regulates homeostasis, circadian rhythms, and hunger. Since many hormones are involved in emotions, the hypothalamus plays a key role in emotion regulation. For example, hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which are produced in the hypothalamus, are involved in feelings of trust, compassion, and empathy.


Another brain structure involved in emotional processing is the insula, which is located deep inside the brain between the two hemispheres. The insular cortex is involved in sensory processing, feelings, emotions, motor control, decision-making, empathy, and self-awareness. One of the primary emotions that the insula is involved in is the emotional response to disgust. Interestingly, functional MRI scans show that patients presented with either an olfactory (smell) cue or a social cue, such as a person displaying the facial expression of disgust, elicit activity in the insula.

Therapy and Connecting to Your Emotions

If you are struggling with how to identify your emotions, engaging in individual or couples therapy can be a great resource. Your therapist will support you in identifying the emotions that arise in different situations. You will learn to navigate away from the murky feelings of not fully understanding your emotions to have a good grasp on not only what emotions you are experiencing but also what types of things will trigger certain emotional responses. Learning how to identify your emotions is a process and won’t happen overnight. However, with practice, you will be able to successfully navigate how to understand your emotions, leading to a better understanding of yourself.



Cleveland Clinic

Michigan State Library

Psych Central

The Insular Cortex