What exactly are emotions? Well, there’s no easy answer to that; it depends on who you ask and what their theoretical perspective is (you can read more in What Is… an Emotion). But regardless of how we define them, how do we describe them? That can be easier said than done. There’s even a psychiatric term, alexithymia, for difficulty identifying and articulating emotions.
Several researchers have suggested that there are basic universal human emotions that remain consistent across cultures. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise. I like the emotion wheel diagram above because it takes these basic emotions and further subdivides them into more detailed descriptors.
Labelling emotions and mood tracking
When I’m feeling quite low, I tend to have a number of emotions going on at the same time. When that happens, I can usually identify the basic emotions I’m experiencing, but to really get into detail it’s helpful to have a list. I’ve never found rating my mood to be all that useful (read why I hate the 1-10 mood rating scale), but I do like to keep track of the mix of emotions that I’m experiencing. I came up with this colour-coded list in my bullet journal, so each day I record a mood rating plus the coloured letters to represent each emotion that I’m feeling.
I think that by glancing through the list each time I’m doing an entry, I’m identifying the more subtle emotions as well as the ones that stand out the most obviously. Sometimes I’m able to identify where these emotions are coming from, and other times it’s harder. I may think I’m feeling a certain emotion in relation to a certain event, but with more reflection I may realize that I’m actually reacting to something entirely different. Journalling has helped a lot with identifying that kind of thing.
One thing that stands out to me with my emotion list is the lack of positive emotions. I guess it’s just been so long that there hasn’t been an occasion that prompted me to add positive emotions to the list.
Emotions and bodily sensations
I typically don’t feel a strong connection between emotions and bodily sensations. I’m not sure if this is me not being in touch with my body, or if it’s just how I tend to experience emotion. The most notable exception to this is anxiety, which I’m more likely to feel in a physical sense (e.g. chest tightness, heart pounding) than an emotional one.
Stress can manifest itself in tension in the shoulders, back, and jaw, but I get regular massages so that’s kept from getting out of control. I do have physical symptoms with my depression sometimes, like psychomotor retardation (slowing of movements) and GI disturbance, but it seems to be more connected with the illness in general rather than reflecting any specific emotion.
Then there’s the matter of facial expression of emotions. Mental illness can sometimes have a significant effect on this. My expression (or “affect” to use the psychiatric term) gets very flat when my depression is causing a lot of physical/mental slowing. I remember times when I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, trying to contort my face into a smile, and simply couldn’t do it. Aside from the ultra-slow movement, this is a pretty obvious sign to those who know me that I’m not well. By contrast, when I am well, I smile a lot.
All emotions are OK
Some emotions are more difficult than others. Feelings like anger, jealousy, and shame aren’t pleasant to experience, but they serve a purpose. If one of your pets died, would you rather feel grief or happiness? Grief seems far more appropriate for the situation.
Toxic positivity messaging says that being positive is the only way that’s acceptable. But why should only certain emotions be valid? A whole array of emotions is a natural part of the human experience; you don’t need to be positive.
Another element of toxic positivity is the idea that happiness is a choice. Except emotions aren’t choices—even less so when mental illness is involved. Emotions come from our mind and body reacting to what’s present for us in the moment. Perhaps we’re better served by developing greater awareness of our emotions rather than trying to exert control over them.
Do you try to pay close attention to the emotions you’re experiencing? Does it come easily to you, or are there certain strategies you use to help you?
Emotion lists are available from:
- Tara Brach (author of Radical Acceptance): broken down into feelings when needs are satisfied vs unsatisfied
- Therapist Aid
- Hoffman Institute: this list also includes physical sensations
Wikipedia has a page dedicated to contrasting and categorization of emotions.
Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, shown below, is pretty, but it just doesn’t feel quite right to me.
This how-to guide on creating a bullet journal to support mental health is available free from the MH@H Store. My approach isn’t about artistry; it’s all about functionality.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.