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Name Feelings to Tame Big Emotions

name feelings

Believe it or not, the ability to name feelings can be an impactful, emotionally intelligent superpower.

Have you ever heard the famous Viktor Frankl quote about stimulus and response? “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This concept can be a life changing idea, especially if you are someone who experiences emotions often, uncomfortably, and in a big way.

The thing is, we don’t only need to create space in between stimulus (emotion) and response (reactive or responsive behavior). Rather, it matters very much what we do with that space.

Before diving into this easy to apply step by step guide to naming your feelings, make sure to read more about how to feel emotions by understanding what emotions are and how the processing system works in our brain and body.

What are feelings?

At a basic level, emotions are the output of a processing system that originates in the limbic part of the brain. There is nothing “good” or “bad” about emotions; they are simply information that your brain is attempting to communicate to your conscious mind through physiological, or body-based, indicators.

You know when you feel a pit of nerves in your stomach right before a big presentation? This is your body’s way of trying to warn you of the fear your brain is picking up on and to try to seek safety (which is why you might feel like getting the hell out of there, even when you try to tell yourself it’s going to be okay).

Some emotions are uncomfortable. We may (understandably!) find ourselves wishing that we could just avoid them or push them away. However, since they are communicated through the body, suppressing them or trying to push them away does not actually get rid of them. Suppression can even make them more intense over time.

Which totally makes sense if you think about it- if you’re trying to tell your friend something and you think they can’t hear you, you’ll try to talk louder. Your brain is doing the same thing!

How to Name Feelings

So, how do we handle these emotions? As the cliche goes, the only way out is through. And it starts with learning how to name feelings.

Naming your feelings allows you to create the space to notice what is happening for you. You can’t cope with what you don’t acknowledge or notice!

Here are some steps you can use to name your emotions:

As Frankl noted, before we can do anything productive, we need to create a space in between big feelings and responding.

This pause is easier said than done, but it is possible with awareness and discipline. Typically when your emotions are big, you can notice a shift in your body. Maybe…

  • your heart rate increases
  • you feel hot
  • you feel a pit in your stomach
  • you feel heaviness in your chest
  • you notice tightness in the back of your throat

Notice when these body markers activate and take that as your indicator that some emotions are moving through you. This is your cue to pause and allow your body to feel what’s happening before you try to name feelings.

Now that you’ve paused, you can attach a name to your emotion. You are reading to name emotions.

Research shows that this step of labeling alone reduces the intensity of the emotion you feel. The studies have found that a naming a heightened emotion reduces the activity in the amygdala (i.e. the part of the brain that is responsible for processing fearful or threatening stimuli) and increases the activity in the prefrontal cortex (I.e. the part of the brain that inhibits behaviors).

Here’s where we’ll get into how to name your feelings. First, name sure you are using feelings names. As you name an emotion, be specific. Most psychologists and therapists agree on about 5 types of emotions with various versions and nuances.

The more specific you can get, the better. Here is a feelings wheel with several names of emotions you can review and consider whether they capture the essence of what you feel in the moment. Name some emotions and see what feels true to what’s happening in the moment.

Names of feelings ↓

name feelings with feelings wheel

Differentiate is a fancy way of saying to separate your self from your feelings. You are not your feelings, you are the self that is experiencing the feelings.

When you can create space between you and the experience, you tap into the fact that emotions are temporary by nature. This understanding also helps to reduce the intensity of emotions.

Emotions communicate a need. Typically, “negative” or uncomfortable emotions are the brain and body’s way of indicating an unmet need.

When you pinpoint what you are feeling, it becomes possible to understand what exactly it is the emotion is trying to communicate to you.

Here is a table from a previous blog post where I break down the core emotions and their associated needs:

name some feelings

Once you name the feeling and the need, you have key information to move forward. You are setup to respond in a way that will help you process the emotion in your body before you react to the situation.

Here are some ways your body may naturally process the emotional energy:

  • Sad → cry
  • Anger → run, jump
  • Anxiety → breathe
  • Fear → seek comfort

The emotion has been identified, labeled, and made less intense. Remember, we are not ignoring the message of the emotion. Instead, we are regulating our body so that we may integrate our emotional and cognitive intelligence and respond in a mindful, effective way.

From here, you can address getting the needs met that the emotions raised with your loved ones in a mindful and effective way.

Once you’ve mastered how to name feelings, make sure you learn the rest of the steps of how to process emotions. This process will support your mental and emotional health, as well as your relationships (naming your feelings/ naming emotions is step 3 of 5!).

If you find yourself getting stuck taking on this process to name feelings on your own, know that it’s totally normal. Emotions are complex and they move extremely fast. A few sessions with an anxiety therapist can help you understand your own emotions and how to manage them.

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