How to Listen to Your Emotions
Have you ever had one of those days when you felt irritable, overly tired, or had difficulty dealing with your regular daily routine and were unsure why you felt that way? More often than not, we can determine what is contributing to our changes in mood. Maybe your car didn’t turn on in the morning or you over-scheduled yourself. It makes sense that you would feel particularly irritated during those times. However, there are also times when it is hard to point at what is contributing to or causing your distress. This can be incredibly frustrating. When this happens, it can helpful to take a step back and tune in to what you are feeling and what your emotions are trying to tell you.
Sometimes our emotions come out in distinct ways and may be a result of things that took place in the past. For example, if you experienced a breakup that was too painful to deal with, you may have tried to protect yourself by burying any feelings associated with the relationship. However, what can sometimes happen is that these buried feelings come out at other times, even when you aren’t expecting it. So, if you are ever uncertain about why you are feeling whatever you are feeling and there is no logical explanation, it can be helpful to take some steps to learn how to listen to these emotions.
1. One way to listen to your emotions is by tuning into the sensations in your body to name the emotion you are feeling. Here’s how:
Sit or lie down in a quiet room with minimal distractions. Do a quick scan of your body from head to toe to search for any sensations such as tightness, heat or coolness, muscle pain, sweating, racing heartbeat, spasms, clenching, flutters, etc. Now pay attention to whichever of those sensations are loudest or most obvious.
What are these sensations telling you? Are you sad? Afraid? Angry? Nervous? Or is it a combination? These emotions are often displayed in the sensations that you are feeling. Is the tension in your shoulders a representation of your fear or anger? Is your racing heart a representation of your sadness or loneliness?
2. Give your loudest or most obvious emotion a name and a voice. Make it real. Imagine that this sensation is trying to give you a message. What is it saying?
Some helpful questions to ask that voice are:
- What are you afraid of? And why? OR Who or what are you angry with? And why? OR What are you sad about? And why?
- What is your purpose?
- What are you trying to tell me?
3. Now would be a good time to journal. You could write down what these emotions are saying to you and how you would like to respond to them, thus opening a dialogue of understanding between you and your inner voice.
It was an ordinary Tuesday morning for Tom, a 35-year-old lab technician. On his drive to work, he noticed that he was particularly irritated. It wasn’t typical for him to have road rage, but this particular day traffic was upsetting him more than usual. When he arrived at the lab, Tom’s colleague told him that he was approved for a project that he had been working on for months, but Tom quickly mumbled “great” while rolling his eyes. He was confused by his reaction because he felt like he should have been happy or excited – but he wasn’t.
When he returned home later that day and laid down on the couch, he noticed that he felt much more exhausted than he usually does after work. His heart was racing, palms were sweaty, shoulders were sore, and he didn’t have much of an appetite. So he followed the steps outlined above.
He scanned his body for any unusual sensations and found that the most prominent sensation he was feeling was his racing heart. After a few minutes of reflection, he named the emotion behind his racing heart, anxiety. He gave Anxiety a voice and asked it all the necessary questions listed above to try to understand why he was feeling anxious today of all days. Eventually, he realized today was the date of his divorce. Even though it had been 2 years since the divorce, Tom remembered feeling the same tension as he did the day he signed those divorce papers. Beneath the anxiety were deep feelings of loneliness. His body was trying to tell him that he was longing for some love and support. Tom listened to this message and decided that it was time to pay his family a visit in hopes that doing so will help him feel loved and supported. He sought comfort in the idea of visiting them, and surely enough his symptoms of anxiety reduced after connecting with his parents.
Taking the steps outlined above can often be a helpful first step in identifying what would be most helpful to address your emotions, whether that’s reaching out to loved ones or approaching a therapist to further explore your distress.
Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of emotional regulation, personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.