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Naming Our Emotions

Identifying the More Subtle Elements of Our Mood

What are emotions and how do we describe them?  Often it's not a subject we give much thought to.  Even within the field of psychology there are various theories espoused by various researchers.  Some emotions may be easy to recognize, like happiness, sadness, anger, and jealousy.  Often, though, if you dig beneath the surface just a little bit, you can discover there are actually a lot of emotions going on in addition the obvious ones.  Realizing this may make it easier to understand where those strong obvious emotions are coming from, which can then help us to better manage our emotions.

Certain emotions are thought to be fundamental and consistent across various cultures.  Examples are anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, and happiness.  As the emotion wheel above shows, the basic emotions can then be broken down into multiple different emotional descriptors that give a more specific picture.  These more specific descriptors may be influenced to a greater extent by cultural and linguistic differences.

Tracking Moods and Emotions

It can be helpful to keep track of our overall moods, and mental health professionals often ask us to rank our moods on a 1-10  scale to help establish a pattern over time.  This gives some information about particular moods, but not a lot.

It can also be helpful to track specific emotions.  Using some sort of emotion wheel diagram or list of emotions is useful, since it can be hard to spontaneously identify specific emotions.  Some individuals experience alexithymia, or a difficulty identifying and expressing emotions.  It is something that may get easier with practice, and keeping track of these more subtle emotions can give you a much more complete picture of what's going on with your mental state than a basic numerical rating.

I use my bullet journal for tracking.  I give a numerical rating for my mood each day, and then I have a list of emotions that I've matched up with different coloured letters, so I can quickly capture the emotions on a calendar grid.  Sometimes it's easy to identify what I'm feeling, while other times it takes more reflection.  Having a list of emotions helps a great deal; without it I don't think I'd get much beyond the basic emotions.

Emotions and the Body

Emotions can manifest in bodily sensations, and if can be helpful to pay conscious attention to this.  Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for trauma pays a lot of attention to how emotions and memories turn up in the body.

Anxiety is often highly connected to the body.  For me, I often experience anxiety on a solely physical level, without anxious thoughts accompanying.  As I've grown more familiar with how anxiety is expressed in my body, the experience is less frightening and easier to approach with acceptance.

Facial Expression of Emotions

Mental illness can have a significant effect on the ability to convey emotions through facial expressions, which may be a very visible sign to others that things aren't well.  When my depression is really bad, my facial expression is totally unresponsive.  I remember there have been times when I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, trying to force myself to smile, but it just wasn't happening.  It was like the part of my brain that would normally be responsible for that function had closed up shop and gone home early.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Plutchik's emotion wheel - Wikipedia

While this emotion wheel is nice and colourful, I'm not entirely convinced of its accuracy.  While rage may be an extreme of annoyance, I don't think boredom necessarily leads down the pass to loathing.

Emotions are very complex, and may be influenced by multiple factors. While we may think about disorders like bipolar and depression as involving mood, we often don't look too closely at the individual emotions involved. In doing so, though, perhaps we can learn something more about ourselves and what we're experiencing.

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