Decoding Your Emotions
For many of us, dealing with our emotions is something we avoid. Or, we simply act on our emotions, depression, grief or anxiety without knowing the underlying reason for our actions. To decode your emotions means to slow down the entire emotion/thought/act process. As if you were able to hit the slow mode button on a remote, watching a seen play out slowly, step by step. Clients often come to therapy wanting a list of ways to take action and change their behaviors. For example, “I need steps on how to not feel so angry around my sister,” or “Tell me what I need to do to have more confidence.” Emotions are at the root of most our thoughts and actions. To identify what your feeling and what’s connected to that feeling can give you deeper insight into why you act the way that you do, and therefore gives you an opening to find alternative responses. The bottom-line is, in order to figure identify the how-to, you need to first identify the emotion. The follow is a step by step approach to decoding your emotions.
Note: to simplify the tip, most of the examples and focus will be on negative emotions, since these are the emotions that are most difficult for people to manage.
Take a piece of paper and do your best to identify these 3 areas.
What is the thought that you are having that is starting all of this in the first place?
Do your best to rewind as far back into your thoughts as you can remember. What prompted the strong emotions you are having in the first place? Likely there was first an event that occurred, whether it was something that happened to you, in front of you, or an interaction with someone. From there, what was your mental response? To help you begin the brainstorming process, here are some common thoughts that tend to trigger intenseemotion: “Nothing I do is good enough.” “Is anything ever going to work out?” “I am not good enough.” “It’s always up to me to do everything.” Whatever the thought was for you. Write it down, and then move on to step two.
Can you identify a feeling that goes along with this thought? (Cheat sheet: I can link to a tip on the 8 basic emotions that I did way back). Please feel free to refer to the following link for a more detail review of the 8 basic emotions. Again, to help you get started in identifying the emotions, here are a few options: Anger, pain, sadness, fear, loneliness. You may be experiencing just one emotion, or more than one. Write down theemotion(s) and move on to step three.
My Physical Reaction
Are you feeling this anywhere physically in your body? For example, a stiffness in your neck, clenched fists, are you hot in the face? Maybe you have a headache or a tingling sensation in your stomach. Take a few minutes to be still and take inventory of your body. There is no wrong answer here, just take your time and go with what physically speaks to you. This is a new skill you are trying for the first time, it’s similar to building a new muscle, so be patient and keep taking inventory. Write down the the sensation.
Here is an example of the completed three steps for you:
Thought/ Emotion/ Sensation
“I always say the wrong thing.” —— Loneliness/anger/fear—————Headache,stomachache
First, take a look at your work. It’s as though you just looked under the hood of a car for the first time, but instead of finding an engine, you explored your mind and how it works in conniption with your emotions.
Before you had this information, what would you have typically done in response to how you were feeling. How would you have typically behaved? Now that you have this information, are you thinking of making different choices, or the same? The goal in slowing you down, having you identify the process your mind and body goes through is that this insight will give you encouragement to respond differently.
For example, now that you’ve identified the negative thought, you can challenge this thought with reality testing and/or positive self-talk: “Do I REALLY say the wrong thing every single time I open my mouth? How do I know I say the wrong thing? Are people reacting negatively to me when I speak? Or is this just my perception? Actually, I am a good person and I care very much about those around me.
As for the emotions identified, it’s not about solving or numbing these emotions, sometimes just recognizing them for what they are is all you have to do. From there, what do you need to take care of yourself while you feel this way? If you’re feeling lonely or fearful, maybe you need to reach out to your best friend for support? If you’re feeling angry, doing physical activity can help you redirect your emotion into something cathartic and healthy.
When we can identify the physical reaction and where it’s located, we can learn how to cope with the physical response and the emotion so much earlier, before the feelings and thoughts fester and grow into something larger and unmanageable. If we take the time, we will learn that our body is filled with messages. We often mask these messages with unhealthy coping: eating, shopping, oversleeping, drinking. The state of our body greatly influences our mind, and if we are unaware of the state of our body, this can affect our thoughts, judgements, feelings. As you become more skillful in identifying the physical location of the feeling, in time you will be able to connect which emotion is often associated with which sensation. Similar to identifying the thought and feeling, when you can identify the physical reaction, you can take care of your body. Sometimes it’s as simple as breathing more, or breathing deeply, doing some stretching to release the physical tension. Pay attention to the intensity of the physical feeling, the heavier or more painful the reaction is, most likely that tells you just how strong of a reaction you’re having to the original thought and emotion.
Identifying our emotions are essential in facilitating behavioral change. Our thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions are very powerful. When we practice awareness of these three areas, we have the control and power over how our emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions will affect us. Try this strategy as often as you can. For the more “advanced client” (meaning someone who is willing to be vulnerable), we encourage you to do this exercise with your partner, family member or friend. Discuss together the different responses you may have to similar situations. People have their own pattern as to how they respond to a situation. The point of this exercise is to increase your awareness of your emotions and thought process so that you can learn how to slow down and manage your pattern and use alternative strategies in the future. Compare your end reaction to situations when you don’t go through this 3 step process. Take your time and be patient. The more you try this strategy, the more it will make sense to you in time.
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