When the answer to “What am I feeling?” is “I don’t know,” change the question to “What do I notice about my body right now?”
Lots of us learned to numb or muffle emotion- and some of us got so good at it that knowing what we feel can be really, really hard. Although our awareness can be numbed, the body’s sense of emotion never leaves.
Where Are Emotions in the Body?
Many emotional experiences start in the body before moving into awareness. When our heart races, we feel queasy, our palms sweat, or our body aches: these can be initial indicators of emotion, from anger to fear to the range of other emotions we experience. When we feel it in our body first, this is a “bottom-up” experience of emotions. In bottom-up emotion experiencing, our bodily sensation informs us that something is going on emotionally. As an example, this might occur when a person’s body becomes restless and fidgety, and a few minutes later awareness of anxiety comes to their awareness.
Alternatively, we can also have “top-down” experiences of emotion. In a top-down emotional experience, our cognitive awareness of an emotional experience moves from our awareness into our body. As an example, this might occur when someone is informed of the loss of someone close to them, then notice their body feels tired or heavy. (Read more about that here.)
How Do I Notice Emotions in My Body?
While we may all notice and name emotions a little differently as they arise in our bodies, researchers in Finland used body mapping research and found that the felt sensations of emotions – from sadness to shame – is fairly similar from person to person.
The ability to notice and name emotions, however, is a practice – one that is developed over a lifetime.
How we learned to name emotions as children
For most of us, in our early lives, a caregiver may have been attuned enough to notice what emotions we were experiencing and helped name that for us. They might have seen our eyes well up with tears and gave us the term “sad.” Or perhaps they experienced us giggling and noted our “happiness.”
How we can learn to name emotions as adults
As we practice this experience of noticing and naming emotions and sensations that become increasingly more complex as we grow older (consider how “anxiety” or “shame” strike differently than simple emotions like “happy” or “sad”), we begin to internalize an entire catalog of emotions and their corresponding body-sensations. With this internalization, we can – in a split second and without conscious thought – understand a particular twinge of our stomach to be the nuanced version of anger we call irritation, or a certain sort of heaviness in our chest to be sadness.
What If I Don’t Feel Emotions in My Body?
It is important to acknowledge that not all of us had the opportunity to practice this noticing and naming experience (called “mirroring” by developmental psychologists) in early childhood. Because of this, we may not have the same emotional vocabulary and quick ability to register the sensations that match each emotion. We still experience a full range of emotions within our bodies, but often lack the ability to name, express, or seek healthy soothing for these emotions.
While many of us have had the experience of not being able to name or notice emotions and/or sensations, for others it can be a more pronounced problem. Alexithymia is the name for the condition when a person is not able to express, tell the difference between, or name emotions. (Visit this article to learn more about alexithymia.)
Growth, for someone who struggles to name the emotions they experience or even acknowledge they are having emotions at 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.
Identifying Emotions in The Body
As we continue this process of noticing and naming emotions and bodily experiences – whether “top-down” or “bottom-up”- we are building neurological connections that help support emotional growth. Building and strengthening these neural connections is like physical therapy for our brain.
We can learn to recognize a particular emotion by practicing recognizing and naming the associated body sensations. To help in that work, you may find my printable emotion sensation wheel (in English and in Spanish), which takes a traditional feeling wheel and modifies it to include the physical sensations that often accompany emotions, a helpful resource.
One way to learn to process and express emotion in our awareness is to start making connections: “Oh, frustration actually feels like *this* in my body!” This is also helpful when we are feeling ambiguously “bad” or struggling to figure out what we need from a friend, colleague, or partner – we can use this information to help us ask for what we need.
A potential way to speed up this process is through therapy. By experiencing the attunement and mirroring of emotion that a good therapist offers, we can recreate some of those developmentally important experiences that may have been missing in childhood. Over time, this type of therapy can strengthen the neural pathways in the brain that make it possible to notice, name, express, and get care for the emotions they experience. Through this process, therapy can help people to develop a wider emotional range, more satisfying relationships outside of therapy, and richer life experiences.