The Emotion Sensation Feeling Wheel
WHAT IS IT:
It’s an adaptation of the “feelings wheel” that many therapists and educators use to help people learn to better recognize and name their emotions, adapted to include common body-based expressions of emotions.
HOW THE EMOTION SENSATION WHEEL IS DIFFERENT:
The two inner rings of this wheel are emotions, the outside ring contains descriptions of the actual physical sensations that may accompany that emotion, described in concrete sensory language. (Language intended to be more accessible for people who are very literal or who are on the ASD spectrum.)
When a person has not had practice recognizing and labeling their emotions, asking them to identify complex emotions becomes an intellectual exercise with limited opportunity to promote growth and change. My emotion sensation wheel prompts mind-body awareness, connection, and conversation.
HOW TO USE:
• A jumping-off point
• A conversation starter
• A reference sheet
• A fill-in-the-blank worksheet for growing self-awareness
This chart is not intended to function as an assessment tool or scientific measure. Human experience is diverse, and good use of this resource should expect and embrace responses like “That’s definitely not true for me” or “Actually, that belongs over in that section.” All responses generate opportunities for making connections, help integrate mind and body, and prompt valuable conversations that can help people grow in understanding how their unique body-sensations and emotions are connected.
Many emotional experiences, researchers at Columbia University have shown, start in the body before moving into awareness. When we can easily name an emotion we’re feeling it’s because we’ve had a lifetime practicing: Way back, an attuned caregiver noticed our eyes welling up with tears and affirmed our “sadness” as they comforted us, or noticed our wide-eyed panic at the appearance of a new person as they named and soothed our “fear.”
Over time and countless interactions that increase in complexity, children internalize an entire catalog of emotions and their corresponding body-sensations. With this catalog, humans can – in a split second and without conscious thought – understand a particular twisting of our gut to be the nuanced version of anger we call irritation, or a certain sort of heaviness in the chest to be sadness. Even though everybody’s body cues are just a little bit different, researchers in Finland found that for most of us, the felt sensation of any specific emotion is pretty similar from individual to individual.
But not all of us have the opportunity to develop a rich emotional vocabulary affirmed by an attuned caregiver. Often, people who missed that process (called “mirroring” by developmental psychologists) while growing up move through life experiencing a full emotional range within their physical body, but are unable to name, express, or seek comfort for (or connection-in) these emotions. At its most pronounced, this difficulty connecting and naming our feelings is known as Alexithymia – although many (if not most) humans have some familiarity with the experience of not being able to notice or name feelings.
Growth, for someone who struggles to name the emotions they experienced – or even acknowledge they are having emotions and all – means learning to recognize the sensations of a particular emotional experience and connect it to a cognitive, conscious understanding in order to express the emotion. (Expression can look like what we typically think of as emotional expression – tears, raised voice, etc – but emotions can be expressed in a number of ways, including art, movement, and writing.)
The Two Ways We Experience Emotions:
Researchers have found that emotions come to be in two ways: “bottom-up” experience, described above, where particular body sensations inform our awareness that something is going on emotionally. There’s also “top-down” emotional experience, that’s when information – like finding out we’re not getting a promotion we wanted or being rejected by a romantic partner – creates a cognitive awareness of emotion that then moves down into the body. Because emotional experience moves in two directions, people who struggle to feel, name, and express their emotions should seek recovery on multiple levels as well.
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This chart can be helpful for starting conversations that begin to make connections on a cognitive level – kind of like top-down emotional experience. It’s my hope that this chart will be used in holistic work to engage the conscious logical brain, the body, and the emotional–limbic brain.
ALSO AVAILABLE: Blank Worksheet
This worksheet has the outer ring blank for customizing to an individual’s own body. Worksheet pack includes 8.5×11″ worksheet, 11×11″ (tiles to two pages), and an XXL file for large format poster printing (excellent for a hands-on group or IOP activity).