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How do I know what I’m feeling?

FEELINGS neon sign with woman sitting underneath on red couch

Because emotions are crucial to our success and survival, it’s also pretty important that we are able to identify exactly what we are feeling. Our bodies do a pretty stellar job giving us clues about our emotional state if we can learn to look for them.

Sometimes it’s obvious: a car cuts us off in traffic and we immediately know that we are pissed off. But sometimes it’s a little less clear: we feel a little queasy inside about the idea of talking to our former co-worker but we’re not too sure why.

The first clue is to check in with your physical sensations. Below are 10 primary human emotions and the physical body sensations that come with them. Also listed are the typical action urges we have when feeling these 10 emotions. If tuning into your body signals doesn’t quite give you enough information, usually identifying your action urge will give you clarity.

You will notice that there is some overlap with the physical sensations. Our bodies can react similarly with different emotional experiences. So once you have identified what is going on physically and what your action urges are, you can then ask yourself:

What is the threat I’m perceiving?

What do I need?

These two questions can help you further identify the specific emotion that is likely bubbling inside you and then how to work with it. See this additional post for an understanding of why we even have emotions in the first place.

The 10 emotions:


...also known as annoyance, bitterness, frustration, indignation, aggravation, irritation, grumpiness, outrage, hostility, rage

Anger is felt in response to:

  • important goals or activities you care about being interrupted or prevented

  • the perception of an imminent attack on you or people you care about

  • a threat to your integrity or social status

Physical sensations and changes from Anger

  • Muscles tightening in shoulders, arms, chest

  • Teeth clamping together

  • Jaw tightening

  • Face flushing or getting hot

  • Feeling chest pressure like you are going to explode

  • Being unable to stop tears

Urges and actions with Anger

  • Wanting to hit something, bang the wall, throw something, blow up

  • Wanting to hit or hurt a person or animal

  • Clenching your hands or fists

  • Frowning, not smiling, mean expression

  • Sneering, grinning

See this additional post for specific coping strategies for anger.


...also known as aversion, dislike, repugnance, resentment, scorn, condescension, hate, spite, contempt, disdain, disapproval, repulsion

Disgust is felt in response to…

  • items that are offensive or could poison/contaminate you

  • people that you deeply dislike who are touching, being close, or talking to you or to other people you care about

  • a person or group whose behavior or thinking could create serious damage or harm to you or the community you are part of

Physical sensations and changes with Disgust

  • Feeling nauseous or sick in the stomach

  • Lump in your throat

  • Feeling unable to drink or eat

  • Vomiting, gagging, choking

  • Skin crawling or feeling contaminated, dirty, unclean

  • Fainting

  • Closing your eyes, looking away

  • Clenching your hands or fists

  • Frowning or not smiling

  • Nose and top lip tightened up

  • Brain feeling mentally polluted

Urges and actions of Disgust

  • Urge to vomit or spit

  • Intense urge to destroy or get rid of something

  • Urge to take a shower or wash hands/face

  • Urge to run away or push away from something

  • Physically attacking the cause of your disgust

  • Using obscenities or cursing

  • Wanting to silence or push another person/group out

  • Speaking with a sarcastic voice tone

  • unpleasant facial expression; smirking


...also known as anxiety, dread, horror, nervousness, shock, uneasiness, overwhelm, panic, worry, apprehension, terror

Fear is felt in response to…

  • perceived threats to our life or the life of those we care about

  • threats to our physical health, well-being or comfort or that of people we care about

  • threats to our success or status or acceptance by others

Physical sensations and changes of Fear

  • Difficulty breathing; chest feeling tight

  • Shallow breath or breathlessness

  • Increased pulse or fast heartbeat

  • Tightness or lump in throat

  • Choking sensation

  • Dry mouth

  • Tight or cramped muscles

  • Clenched jaw or teeth

  • Foggy brain

  • Feeling nauseous or sick in the stomach

  • Diarrhea, vomiting

  • Feeling “butterflies” in your stomach

  • Chills or cold skin

  • Shaking, quivering, or trembling

  • Feeling your hairs prickling or standing up

  • Flushed skin, feeling clammy

  • Sweating or perspiring.

  • Shaky or trembling voice

Urges and actions of Fear

  • Wanting to run away or avoid things

  • Actually fleeing or running away

  • Walking hurriedly; furtive physical moves

  • Hiding from what you are fearing

  • Talking yourself out of doing what you fear

  • Engaging in nervous, anxious talk

  • Pleading or crying for help; whimpering

  • Screaming or yelling

  • Talking less or being unable to talk

  • Darting eyes or quickly looking around

  • Blank or frozen stare

  • Freezing, or trying not to move

  • Urge to yell or call out

See this additional post for specific coping strategies for fear/anxiety


...also known as disappointment, pity, disconnection, depression, despair, hurt, homesickness, anguish, displeasure, suffering, grief, dismay, dejection, misery, alienation, sorrow, agony, rejection, defeat, loneliness, unhappiness

Sadness is felt in response to…

  • the loss of someone or something important

  • things not being the way you want/hope/expect them to be

  • unattained goals or things we want but can not have

Physical sensations and changes from Sadness

  • Feeling tired, run down, or low in energy

  • Feeling lethargic and physically weak

  • Being listless; wanting to stay in bed all day

  • Feeling as if nothing is pleasurable anymore

  • Pain or hollowness in your chest or gut.

  • Feeling as if you can’t stop crying, or if you ever start crying you will never be able to stop

  • Thickness behind your eyes

  • Difficulty swallowing; loss of appetite

  • Breathlessness

  • Dizziness or faintness

  • Foggy brain

  • Lump in throat

  • Eyes drooping

  • Frowning, not smiling

  • Face drawn down

  • Slumped shoulders or posture

Urges and actions of Sadness

  • Avoiding things

  • Withdrawing from social contact

  • Acting helpless; staying in bed; being inactive

  • Brooding, moping, or being moody with others

  • Moving slowly

  • Avoiding activities that used to bring pleasure

  • Giving up and no longer making effort

  • Saying sad things

  • Talking little or not at all

  • Using a quiet, slow, or monotonous voice

  • Sobbing, crying, whimpering


...also known as culpability, remorseful, apologetic, regretful, sorry

Guilt is felt in response to…

  • specific actions we took or didn’t take that led to a violation of our values or moral code

  • something we did/said that negatively impacted someone we care about

  • a lack of action that negatively impacted ourselves or others

Physical sensations and changes from Guilt

  • Flushed, red face

  • Hot skin, sweating

  • Jitteriness, nervousness

  • Difficulty breathing, sensation of suffocating

  • Pit in stomach

  • Lump in throat

  • Avoiding eye contact

Urges and actions of Guilt

  • Wanting to avoid the person or situation that is causing the guilt

  • Trying to repair the harm, make amends for the wrongdoing, fix the damage, change the outcome

  • Asking for forgiveness, apologizing, confessing

  • Giving gifts/making sacrifices to try to make up for the transgression.

  • Looking down; bowing your head


...also known as embarrassment, mortification, shyness, humiliation, self-consciousness, culpability

Shame is felt in response to…

  • something about us that could lead to a rejection from our community

  • something about us that could lead to a loss of connection

  • personal characteristics or behaviors that are "dishonoring" or "prohibited" in our family or social group

Physical sensations and changes with Shame

person with hands over face in shame
  • Pain in the pit of the stomach

  • Nausea or upset stomach

  • Sense of dread

  • Chills or flushed skin

  • Tightness in throat and chest

  • Dry mouth; choked speech

  • Curling in; wanting to shrink down or disappear.

  • Wanting to hide or cover your face and body

  • Feeling frozen or paralyzed

Urges and actions of Shame

  • Bowing your head, groveling

  • Withdrawing; covering your face

  • Hiding your behavior from others

  • Hiding a characteristic about you from others

  • Avoiding the person you have harmed

  • Avoiding people who do or might criticize you

  • Avoiding yourself—distracting away and ignoring thinking about yourself

  • Appeasing; saying you are sorry over and over and over

  • Looking down and away from others

  • Sinking back; slumped and rigid posture

  • Halting speech; lowered volume while talking


...also known as fear of losing, wariness, clutching, cautious, defensive, suspicious, watchful, clinging, mistrustful, self-protective

Jealousy is felt in response to…

  • perceiving someone as a threat to our relationships or to things that are very important to us

  • feeling uncertain about the quality or security of the bond in a relationship

  • an important status situation (like a job) seems in danger of being damaged or lost

  • having something that you are afraid to lose.

Physical sensations and changes with Jealousy

  • Choking sensation, lump in throat

  • Tight shoulders; muscles tensing

  • Difficulty breathing; shallow breath

  • Increased pulse; fast heartbeat

  • Jaw or teeth clenching

  • Mind spinning; unable to have clarity

  • Wide eyes or darting eyes

  • Decreased blinking

Urges and actions of Jealousy

  • Wanting to keep hold of what you have

  • Wanting to push away or eliminate your rival

  • Becoming suspicious of others

  • Violent behavior or threats of violence

  • Attempting to control the person you are afraid of losing

  • Verbal accusations of disloyalty or unfaithfulness

  • Interrogating the person; demanding accounting of time or activities.

  • Spying behaviors

  • Collecting evidence of wrongdoings

  • Clinging; enhanced dependency

  • Increased or excessive demonstrations of love


...also known as craving, displeasure, greed, bitterness, discontentment, resentment, longing, wishfulness, down-hearted

Envy is felt in response to…

  • other people getting or having things we do not have but we want or need

  • the perception that others are happier, more comfortable, more loved, or better off in some way than we are

  • wanting something that others have

Physical sensations and changes from Envy

  • Muscles tightening

  • Tightness in chest

  • Teeth clamping together, jaw tightening

  • Feeling your face flush or get hot

  • Feeling heat in your chest area

  • Feeling rigidity in your body

  • Pain in the pit of the stomach

  • Sense of dread or something looming

Urges and actions of Envy

  • Having an urge to hurt the people you envy

  • Wanting the person/people you envy to lose what they have, to have bad luck, or to be hurt

  • Doing something to make the other person fail or lose what they have

  • Feeling pleasure when others experience failure or lose what they have

  • Feeling unhappy if another person experiences some good luck

  • Taking away or ruining what the other person has

  • Attacking or criticizing the other person

  • Saying mean things about the other person or making the person look bad to others

  • Trying to show the other person up, to look better than the other person

  • Avoiding people who have what you want

  • Feeling motivated to improve yourself or your situation

  • Taking action to get what the other person has


...also known as attraction, enchantment, sympathy, adoration, caring, liking, fondness, longing, tenderness, affection, infatuation, lust, compassion, kindness, desire, sentimentality

Love is felt in response to…

  • being with someone or something that significantly enhances our quality of life

  • being with someone or something that increases our chance of attaining personal goals and overall wellness

  • being with others who increase our chances of survival

  • the biological drive for the survival of our lineage through reproduction

Physical sensations and changes with Love

  • Feeling energetic; alert

  • Quickened pulse; fast heartbeat

  • Feeling excited

  • Butterflies in stomach

  • Warmth inside your core

  • Sense of fullness in your core

  • Feeling relaxed and calm

  • Mind feels clear and uncluttered

  • Calm, smiling face

  • Relaxed, bright eyes

Urges and actions of Love

  • Wanting to give things to a person

  • Wanting to see and spend time with a person

  • Wanting physical closeness or sex

  • Wanting emotional understanding and closeness

  • Expressing positive feelings to a person

  • Eye contact, mutual gaze

  • Touching, petting, hugging, holding, cuddling

  • Sharing time and experiences with someone

  • Doing things that the other person wants or needs


...also known as satisfaction, exhilaration, joy, triumph, optimism, gladness, enjoyment, enthusiasm, contentment, pride, relief, excitement, eagerness, amusement, cheerfulness, pleasure, hope, delight

Happiness is felt in response to…

  • people, experiences, or things that help us feel comfortable

  • people, experiences, or things that help us feel a lack of distress

  • people, experiences and things that lead to our optimal functioning

  • situations that we predict will lead to successful outcomes for ourselves and others we care about

Physical sensations and changes with Happiness

  • Physically energetic, active

  • Giggling or laughing

  • Having a bright, glowing face

  • Chest skin flushing; overall warm skin

  • Calmness throughout the body

  • Feeling open or expansive in the body

Urges and actions of Happiness

  • Urge to keep doing what is associated with the happy feeling

  • Smiling broadly

  • Being bouncy, bubbly, or silly

  • Communicating your good feelings

  • Saying positive things; giving compliments

  • Using an enthusiastic or excited voice

  • Being talkative or talking a lot

  • Hugging people

  • Jumping up and down


Feelings Wheel

Some folks really like the Feelings Wheel visual. It uses different emotion words than I have outlined in this article but the idea is getting in the habit of honing in on your specific emotional experience. As psychiatry professor Dr. Dan Siegel coined, once we name it, we can then tame it.

feelings wheel in color

There are several versions of this wheel; the above is created by Geoffrey Roberts.

Okay, what's next?

You now have an idea of the physical sensations that can indicate what you are feeling. But most of us are not accustomed to paying attention to our physical body sensations. Awareness of self is a foundational skill to understanding and managing our emotions. Mindfulness strategies & skills offer a clear path to having this increased self-awareness.

Once you get into a routine of scanning your body for signals, you’ll have a more robust awareness of your emotions. From there you can ask yourself those 2 key questions mentioned above:

What is the threat I’m perceiving?

What do I need?

These two questions can give you the insight you need to best manage your emotions in a way that works. Your next step is to practice paying attention to your sensations and urges more and more regularly!


If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.



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