emotion labels

Similar to the core beliefs in the previous section, the labels we have for emotions can often be used without us thinking too much about them. Again, the brain’s need to categorize will be one of the reasons for this, as will our shared social norms.Words such as ‘angry’, ‘worried’, ‘anxious’, sad and upset get used a lot in therapy, by both clients and therapists. The familiarity of these words might make it seem obvious what they mean, but they aren’t as universal as we might think. In Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made (2017), she reports how there is evidence from several studies to show that we do not all show emotions in the same way, even though we think that we can tell what emotion someone is displaying. For example, the way that anger is displayed can be very different: one person might display anger with a red face, a puffed-out body and pounding fists, whereas another might be very still, and stare at the object of their anger with a seething rage that has very few outward signs of aggression. Barrett mentions research that indicates that people who have more words in their vocabulary to explain how they feel appear to do better both in regulating their emotions and on measures of success. There could be many reasons for this; for example, if we are able to refine what we actually feel, then this shows we are observing what we are experiencing and will be adopting strategies to manage these feelings based on what we notice. Perhaps because we will be more attuned to the subtleties of different feelings, we may notice them earlier before they swell. An example here would be noticing and managing minor irritations rather than exploding in rage. As a result, we would have better emotional regulation than someone who does not pay much attention to how they feel and has very few labels to use to apply to their experiences.

When I say ‘pay attention to how you feel’, what I mean by this is noticing not only what goes through your mind, but also what is going on physically in your body. If you get a gripping sensation in your gut, this is a feeling, if you feel your breath getting faster and quicker as you say something to someone, this is a feeling. The thoughts that go through your mind as you have these sensations are part of the feeling too. A feeling does not have to be an intangible concept. Feelings are thoughts going through your mind, and sensations, impulses and movements in your body. If you start to notice these, you will get to know where you tend to ‘feel’ certain emotions. For example, when I feel nervous, I feel this straight away in my lower gut. It’s a ‘wrenching’ feeling.

Have a go right now. Do a quick body scan and check if you are hold- ing any tension anywhere. Are you biting your inner lip, or clenching your toes, or holding tension anywhere else? Take a big breath and let it flop out as you release tension.

The next time you notice you feel on edge, stressed, tense, anxious or frustrated, scan your body to see what you notice. Whereabouts is this ‘on-edgeness’? Is it in your gut? Your head? Are you clenching your jaw? What words would you use to describe how you feel right now?

It can be difficult to put words to a feeling. One of the reasons for this is because we are trying to use a different part of our brain to ‘describe’ what we are experiencing. But this can be helpful in giving us a little bit of distance and a space within which to choose what to do next. If we practise this, we can get much better at not letting emotions blindside us. Have a look at the list of emotion words below. Instead of using the word ‘anxious’, could there be another word you could use? Maybe ‘appre- hensive’, ‘doubtful’, ‘unsure’? Add your own words to the list if you’ve found one that isn’t on there. This is part of our emotional literacy, and I know I wasn’t taught to do this when I was younger. It’s important that we can describe and manage how we feel, that we know what emotions are, how to recognize them within ourselves and how to talk to others about what we feel.

So let’s have a go. I’d love to ask if we could create more words for emotions together. I’m going to start a list here and would like to invite your words too. You will have had experiences that differ from mine, so I do not have the monopoly here.

Next time you notice yourself feeling something, be it sad, thoughtful, unsure, worried, angry, embarrassed, I’d like to ask you to notice where you feel this physically in your body, and then find a word on the list to describe the feeling or put your own word to it. The more that you do this the more you will be identifying the subtleties in your own feelings. This gives you more mastery over what you feel.

AFRAID

Explanation: feeling fearful and apprehensive
Alternatives: Alarmed, anxious, apprehensive, fearful, frightened, intimidated, nervous, panicky, petrified, scared, shaken, startled

ANGRY

Explanation: feeling and/or expressing fury or annoyance
Alternatives: annoyed, cross, enraged, exasperated, furious, incensed, indignant, irate, hacked off, heated, mad, outraged, provoked, raging, ranting, raving, riled, vexed

CALM

Explanation: being at peace, still and relaxed
Alternatives: at peace, relaxed, serene, settled, soothed, tranquil, untroubled

CONNECTED

Explanation: feeling part of something, feeling like you belong (an important feeling for our nervous system)
Alternatives: affiliated, associated, engaged, kindred, linked, related, tied, connected, loved, belonging

DISGUSTED

Explanation: feeling sickened or turned off
Alternatives: appalled, nauseated, repelled, repulsed, sickened, turning away from

ENTHUSIASTIC

Explanation: feeling interested and willing
Alternatives: avid, committed, desirous, devoted, eager, ebullient, excited, fervid, keen, passionate

EXCITED

Explanation: thrilled and ready for action
Alternatives: animated, aroused, enthusiastic, expectant, high, moved, roused, stirred, stimulated, wild, yearning

FLAT

Explanation: without expression, feeling in limbo
Alternatives: empty, depressed, dispirited, downhearted, drained, numb, shocked, tired, weak, weary, without energy, worn out

FRUSTRATED

Explanation: being held back, prevented from doing something or your expectations remaining unfulfilled
Alternatives: disappointed, discouraged, disheartened, irked

INSPIRE

Explanation: to fill with energy, to make something seem possible
Alternatives: encourage, energize, galvanize, influence, infuse, motivate, persuade, stimulate

IRRITATED

Explanation: not feeling able to rest, being on edge, snappy
Alternatives: agitated, crabby, disagreeable, flustered, fractious, grumpy, hassled, impatient, miffed, nettled, tetchy, peeved

LONELY

Explanation: feeling like you can’t connect to others
Alternatives: abandoned, alone, companionless, estranged, forlorn, friendless, isolated, outcast, solitary

RELIEVED

Explanation: a feeling of being able to release yourself from tension
Alternatives: cheered, comforted, glad, grateful, happy, pleased, reas- sured, thankful

SAD

Explanation: feeling the loss or absence of something or someone
Alternatives: blue, depressed, down, empty, gloomy, glum, grieving, low, melancholy, mournful, pensive, sombre, tearful, unhappy, wistful

SAFE

Explanation: believing that you are protected from danger in that moment (very important for a healthy nervous system to notice when you feel safe)
Alternatives: impregnable, out of danger, protected, safe and sound, secure, comforted, soothed

SURPRISED

Explanation: taken aback by something unexpected
Alternatives: astonished, astounded, baffled, bewildered, confused, confused, dismayed, embarrassed, fazed, flummoxed, mystified, perplexed, puzzled, stumped, stunned

SUPPORTED

Explanation: feeling like you have the help that you need (something to do for ourselves, as well as for others)
Alternatives: advocate, aid, assist, boost, champion, defend, encourage, help, hold, promote, stand up for, stick up for

UPSET

Explanation: an unpleasant mix of feelings
Alternatives: agitated, choked, confused, disconcerted, dismayed, dis- tressed, disturbed, distraught, distressed, gutted, hassled, hurt, overwrought, ruffled, shaken, tormented, troubled, unhappy, wrenched

WORRIED

Explanation: thinking about what might go wrong and feeling anxious as a result
Alternatives: anxious, apprehensive, avoidant, bothered, concerned, distracted, disturbed, fretful, hesitant, jittery, nervous, on-edge, perturbed, restless, shaken, suspicious, tense, troubled, twitchy, uneasy