How to Feel Emotions by Understanding the Process and the 5 Core Emotions

how to feel emotions

One of the most difficult parts of being a human is how to feel emotions, and fully feeling and experiencing the difficult sensations they can bring.

People go to great lengths to avoid having to feel their feelings, all the time. Think about the last time you or someone you love….

  • Had a drink after work to relieve feelings of stress or overwhelm
  • Turn on the television at night to quiet the thoughts in the mind
  • Help or over-focus on other people’s problems to avoid dealing with your own

Some of the emotions we experience as humans are downright unpleasant to feel, but we are designed to experience them all.

I’m going to break down what emotions are and how they are processed in the body so you can learn how to process tough emotions effectively and move forward with your life.

Remember, a counselor or anxiety therapist is an excellent resource when you get stuck applying these concepts yourself.

What are Emotions?

Let’s start with breaking down what emotions actually are.

We tend to think of emotions as one-word and one-dimensional, e.g., “I feel depressed after this break-up” or “I am so stressed from all this work I could explode.”

In reality, emotions are a complex, multi-dimensional process. The emotions system integrates our cognitive and meaning-making brains with our nervous system to read our environment and keep us safe.

how to feel emotions

There is a huge cost to not knowing how to feel emotions.

As most people in modern day have experienced, unprocessed emotions are often expressed in the body in other physiological symptoms:

  • Stress
  • Blood pressure
  • Low immunity

If you don’t understand and process your own emotions, you are also much more likely to live in a state of reactive projection on others. You might think that all your problems are about other people, and not see the needs in yourself that need to be addressed.

In addition, if you don’t tap into your own emotions and what you need, you won’t be able to send clear signals to the people around you. You run the risk of inviting chaos and disconnection into your relationships with trusted others.

These are the key components of the emotion signaling process:

Cue or trigger: What we see in the environment that brings about a reaction. It takes 1/10 of a second for the emotional brain to react to these cues.

Bodily sensation: What you feel physiologically in response to the cue. Some examples are heat, tightness in the chest, heaviness, lightness, knots in the stomach, or a lump in the throat. Think about what you notice in your body just before you notice you are feeling emotional.

Thoughts or narrative: The story your mind tells yourself about what has happened and what it all means. It takes about 6/10 of a second for the message of the trigger to get to your prefrontal cortex for your mind to start weighing in on the situation.

Emotion: The felt sense that integrates your bodily response and your cognitive appraisal. There are 5 main emotions, which are described below.

Action or response: What you do in response to the bodily sensation, thoughts, and emotion.

Emotions also have qualities about them, and rather labeling them as “positive” or “negative”, (because really, they are all useful) think of them as having functions that either pull us toward or away from others.

Levels of emotions

Two levels of emotions exist- primary and secondary. Every emotion that we have has a core, primary function as well as a secondary response.

Primary emotions are the underlying, genuine experience, and it reflects our needs and the places we are vulnerable. They represent our immediate response to a threat itself, and usually involve feeling sad or scared, a softer experience of the emotion.

Secondary emotions are reactive, defensive, and protective. They are how we protect ourselves when we sense the presence of the vulnerable, soft emotion. The are always covering a primary emotion, but people often do not know that and cannot access the primary emotion when they are really heated.

A Practical Example

The most common example of the layering of primary and secondary emotions are sadness or fear layered with anger. Let’s say your husband comes home late from work, and you are livid. He said he would be home on time today, but he’s an hour late, *and* he forgot to pickup the groceries he promised.

You’re mad, and your anger makes sense- you were counting on him. But in the grand scheme of things (this was his first time coming home late, he was honest about his slip up, and he apologized) the situation might not warrant an intense level of anger. As you process this anger, it naturally starts to dissipate.

As your anger calms down, you realize that you are still hurt. You feel hurt that your husband did not prioritize getting home early, and you tell yourself you don’t matter as much to him as his work does. This hurt makes you sad and makes you long for a time when life was more simple. These sensations of sadness and hurt are your primary emotions coming to the surface.

As you untangle the events and each partner’s experience, you realize that the hurt and sadness were the primary emotions you felt. But almost immediately, anger moved in to protect you from feeling and showing those soft, vulnerable emotions. In this way, understanding the process allows you to understand how to feel emotions.

Here’s how the same interaction fits into the pieces of emotional processing we walked through above:

Cue or trigger: Husband walks into room, late, with no groceries.

Bodily sensation: Stomach falls (primary emotion= hurt), then heat and increased heart rate (secondary emotion= anger)

Thoughts or narrative: I can’t believe he couldn’t do this one thing for me. I must not be important to him. I must not matter.

Emotion: Hurt, anger

Action or response: Criticize his lateness (pushes focus away from the primary hurt)

Staying in the secondary emotion can be useful in many different situations in life, like when we need to protect ourselves.

In other times, staying in the defensive place and prevent us from connecting with loved ones and ourselves.

Types of Emotions

Most psychologists and therapist agree on five core emotions. Recognizing emotions in others can be intuitive.

Each emotion has a corresponding felt sense in the body, a need, and an action we tend to use. The examples provided below for the bodily sensation and action may show up differently for you, but these are ones we generally see.

EmotionPhysiological ResponseNeedAction
Joy/ surpriseOpenness, lightnessExplorePull others toward
AngerHeat, increased heart rate, floodingTo be heard
To move away from hurt/ protect
Increase intensity
FearKnots in stomach, sweatingSafety and securityHide away
SadnessHeaviness, lump in throatConnectionCry (pull others toward)
ShameSinking feeling, queasinessTo be goodHide away or disappear

Consider the 5 core emotions listed above. Think about a time that you felt each of these, and then try to put yourself back in that moment.

See if you can tap into anything you feel in your body, anything you think you need in that moment, and what you tend to do when that emotion is present.

Explore anything that comes up in your journal as you attune to your own body and mind in these activated moments. Equally, notice any ways you tend to avoid feelings emotions when difficult ones arise (e.g. substances, television, sex, distractions, etc.)

how to feel emotions

How to Feel Emotions

Understanding what you need when you feel an emotion makes the idea of feeling them much less scary! You know that your emotions are a process of cueing you into what you need to feel safe. Once you know what you need, you can communicate this to others or find it in yourself.

To feel your emotions, you just have to notice the spaces or moments you may be avoiding them, and instead, stay present with yourself. Know that you are safe and you are strong. And you can manage temporary discomfort that comes with the full experience of being a breathing, feeling human.

Right before you reach for one of the avoidance mechanisms you discovered in your journaling exercise, take a pause, notice what you are avoiding, and just allow yourself to stay there.

You might also start to notice when you feel anger or other secondary emotions at an intensity that does not match the situation you are in, and ask yourself, what primary emotion is underneath this? What do I need in this moment?

Emotions are a deep, complex process. If you feel confused about what comes up as you feel emotions, it can be helpful to work with a therapist to have professional guided support in untangling your history in relationships and your present experiences.


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