How to Identify Your Emotions

Emotion Checklists, Memory Recall, and Listening to Your Body

Last week, we explored how paying down emotional debt can improve your mental health. There are many different ways that this can happen. However, I’ve found that the following steps have been particularly helpful in creating a systematic approach to paying down this debt:

  1. Identify the emotion behind the debt

  2. Explore the emotion

  3. Take an iterative approach to paying it down

This week we’re going to discuss how to the identify emotion. For some, this may be an easy task. But for others like myself, it is a skill we must develop.

Identify the Emotion

There are three techniques that have helped me build my emotional intelligence and vocabulary:

  1. Use a list of emotions to check how I am feeling

  2. Recall past emotional experiences

  3. Listen to my body

Emotion Checklist

Whenever I feel like something is bothering me but I’m not sure exactly what it is, I go down a list of emotions to check in with myself and ask:

  • Are you sad?

  • Are you angry?

  • Are you scared?

As silly as it may sound, this exercise has helped me cut through the noise whenever I am overwhelmed by a situation or when I am feeling a tornado of intense emotions. Below is a list of basic emotions that you can practice with:

Once you’ve gotten really good at recognizing these emotions, you’ll start to realize that they can have varying degrees of intensities and subtle nuances. You can use a more expansive vocabulary list of emotions to deepen your emotional intelligence. Here’s one that I received when I was pursuing an M.A. in Counseling.

Recall Past Emotional Experiences

Another tool that has helped me better identify and understand my emotions was to recall past emotional experiences. In order to do that, try following this mental exercise:

  1. Think of a time when you were {insert emotion here}.

  2. What happened?

  3. What did it feel like?

  4. How did your body respond?

By going through these exercises, you will be better equipped to identify similar emotions in the present. You may also find journaling to be helpful in documenting what you notice.

Listen to your body

Your body and your emotions are deeply intertwined. For example, let’s pretend that you’re getting chased by an angry bull.

Your mind registers this as a threat and then your body enters into a fight or flight mode which is activated by your sympathetic nervous system. This pumps epinephrine (or adrenaline) into your body to contract blood vessels, relax breathing tubes, and increase heart rate to create extra energy to respond to the threat. The cortisol levels in your body then rises to maintain your heart rate and keeps your body in an elevated state. The cortisol also stays in your system for a few hours, which is why you can still feel your heart racing or continue to feel flustered long after the threat has passed.

In light of this, one way you can tell you’re stressed is if your body is stressed. Listen to it. Pay attention and see if you can notice biological symptoms of high cortisol levels such as a racing heart, fatigue, and feeling irritable due to a lack of energy. It could be a sign that you’re stressed and you don’t even know it.

To learn more about this field of study, Biology of Emotion gives a great introductory overview.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Emotional intelligence and identifying what you feel can be a difficult process. Thankfully it’s a skill we can develop. Take some time this weekend and try going through some of the exercises listed above. You may be surprised by what you discover!

As we get better at identifying our emotions, the easier it will be for us to explore the Emotion Iceberg. This will help us develop a strategy to pay down our Emotional Debt. We will cover what exactly the Emotion Iceberg is next week.

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