When a negative emotion hits you, you can feel it in your body, right? A heaviness on your chest, a hollow feeling in your stomach, a flushed face, tears welling up. Knowing exactly how to identify and name those emotions? That’s a different story. You know something set you off, and you know you feel bad, but your understanding of what’s going on often stops there.
Maybe you just don’t have time to investigate your emotional state. But it’s also possible that you simply never learned how to do it. “Very well meaning parents chauffeur their kids to soccer practice, drama classes, ballet,” says Andrew Shatté, meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer. “But it rarely occurs to us that one of the best boosts we could give our kids is to teach them about their emotional life.”
These are two steps that will help you pin down what you’re really feeling. And it’s not just for negative emotions! Knowing how to identify and support positive emotions is a great counterbalance to stress.
Get to know your negative emotions
There are seven key negative emotions—the ones that pull the hardest on your body and mind. They are sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Each has its own set of physical symptoms. They vary from person to person, but in general you probably feel flushed when embarrassed, or clench your jaw or shoulders when you’re angry.
When you feel “bad,” what’s happening in your body? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel heavy? Are you bowing your head and avoiding eye contact? Are you restless and agitated? Though it can be hard to observe yourself in the middle of a difficult emotion, try to notice just one part of your body. What’s happening with your hands? Your throat? Your stomach?
All this information helps you go from feeling “bad” to knowing that you’re feeling guilty (the hollow pit in your stomach). Or that you’re feeling ashamed (like your whole body wants to be curling into a tiny ball). Your body is your best teacher in becoming familiar with your emotions.
(Read more on the physical symptoms of negative emotions.)
Shatté notes that tracking your emotions can help you get to know them better. “Often we’re overloading on the negative and short changing ourselves on the positive, so tracking our emotions to ensure we have the right balance is key,” he says. Try setting a random timer on your mobile device—say, every day at 2 p.m. When it goes off, write down the emotion you’re currently experiencing. (The meQ app is an easy way to do this tracking. It works as a companion to your meQ program and is available on both Android and IOS systems.) Track your emotions for a week and see if you detect a pattern. Is there more negative than positive? What’s your dominant negative emotion?
(Read more on how painful emotions can be useful.)
Counter the negative with positive
Now that you’ve got a handle on what you’re really feeling when you feel “bad,” you can consciously choose to feel positive emotions instead. What good feelings do you want to experience more often? Happiness, engagement, pride, contentment, love? Get to know how those positive emotions feel in your body. Fully note with your senses what it’s like to feel so good. Then choose one thing you can do each day to generate more of that feeling.
(Learn how a gratitude habit can boost positive feelings.)
Understanding your emotions is a fundamental tool for managing your stress. When you can “read” your emotions, you have much more control over how you handle them. “Emotions have the power to lift us out of stress or to moor us in it,” says Shatté. And once you master this all-important skill, you can pass it on.