We experience emotion in 4 ways. Whenever we are having an emotional reaction to something, we feel physical sensations in our body, we have thoughts that come up, we do particular actions and we use our words to describe what is going on. It does not matter which emotion we are referring to, there are always body sensations, thoughts, behaviors and words.
Emotions are a physical experience. We don’t always realize it, but our body reacts to emotion when we are experiencing it. Your heart beats faster or slower, your breathing changes, your temperature changes, you might get a knot in your stomach or feel a tightness in your chest or a variety of other body sensations. Most of us don’t really pay attention to where we are feeling emotion in our body but if you stop and notice, you will realize how much it impacts your body.
When we are feeling emotions, our thoughts usually go along with that feeling. If we are feeling anxious, we are often telling ourselves that we are not safe, if we are feeling sad, we are often telling ourselves that we are worthless and if we are feeling angry, we are often telling ourselves that the other party is to blame. The thoughts come up so automatically that it feels as though they are truth.
We have a natural inclination to behave in a particular way when we are feeling emotion., Sometimes, anxiety causes us to be antsy so we pace the floor. Anger makes us want to attack so we may punch a wall. Sadness makes us want to be alone, so we isolate. This is also where we experience maladaptive coping skills such as self-harm or substance use.
We use words to express ourselves. In some cases, we can identify exactly what we are feeling and call it by the common name such as “anxiety.” We also use words like “overwhelmed” or “nervous” or “stressed.” We seek to find words to assign to our feeling so that we can connect with people on a more intimate level.
Why is this important? When we are having an emotional experience, it can feel like we have no way to combat it. We sit in our emotions and feel those body sensations, think those thoughts, do those behaviors and use those words. It can feel like there is no choice. But here is the deal: all 4 of those ways that we experience emotion also impact each other. It works like a cycle-we are triggered into an emotion, we start to feel it in our body, our thoughts turn, our behaviors begin, and we use words to describe what we are experiencing. That means that if we focus on just one, it will shift the others. We don’t have to try and take on all four. If we use our energy and focus just on changing our body sensation, or distracting our thoughts, or changing our behaviors, or changing our definition of what we are feeling…the other three will fall in to place.