One topic I find coming up with my clients again and again, especially trans, nonbinary, and neurodiverse clients, is recognizing and interpreting their own emotions. Emotions are an important part of how we function in the world; I like to think of them as alarms or signals, ways to alert yourself to what’s going on in your current environment. Each basic emotion has its own types of situations that trigger it, and its own ways of manifesting in your body, so checking your body for these signals can tell you a lot about what’s going on and give clues on how to deal with it.
To help clients, I created the cheat sheet below, based on Julia B. Colwell’s discussion in The Relationship Skills Workbook, with some additions and alterations of my own. It’s important to remember that no alarm is perfect: a smoke alarm might go off because you burned some food, or it might really be signaling a fire. Either way, when it goes off, it doesn’t make sense either to automatically assume your house is burning down or that it’s nothing to worry about; instead, when the smoke alarm goes off, you check for a fire. The same is true for emotions: trust, but verify.
|Unfairness, obstacles and intrusions
|Tightness in neck, jaw, shoulders, lower back
|Creativity, attraction, inspiration
|Expanding warmth in chest, stomach, genitals
Rapid shallow breathing
|Well-being, fulfillment, satisfaction
Can be anywhere in body
|Loss of something important or hoped-for
|Heaviness in chest
Tightness in throat
Stinging/prickling/wetness in eyes
First up is anger. This emotion tends to get a bad rap, but it’s actually incredibly important: it’s the alarm that signals either that something unfair is happening, you have encountered an obstacle to your goals, or something is intruding into your space that you don’t want. It usually manifests in the body as tension in or around the shoulders, which can also cause headaches, or tightening of the palms, which often leads to clenched fists.
Desire is often underestimated or neglected as a basic emotion, but it’s a powerful drive. It isn’t just about sex, either—desire can also show up in response to a source of inspiration or be a signal that we’re in a creative mood. It tends to register as warmth in the chest, stomach, or genital area.
Fear is one most people understand pretty well; it signals danger. People can respond to fear in many ways, which I call the Five Fs: Fight the source of fear, Flight away from it to somewhere safe, Freeze and go rigid so you call less attention to yourself, Fawn on the source of fear in hopes of calming them down, and Flop, going limp so injuries will hurt less. Which happens is completely instinctive and can vary from trigger to trigger. Intense fear shows up as an adrenaline rush: your heart rate may increase, your muscles tighten, it may become hard to sit still. Stomach upset is also a common feature, especially when the fear is about an impending or imagined threat rather than one that’s immediately present.
One feeling people have a surprisingly hard time identifying—or maybe trusting—is happiness. Happiness is the “all good” signal, the “alarm” that goes off when we feel safe, satisfied, and fulfilled. It can appear anywhere in the body, and usually shows up as warmth and a sort of loose, flowing feeling. That similarity to desire is no accident—contrary to myths of the tortured artist, most of us are at our most creative when we are feeling good.
Finally there is sadness. Sadness is the alarm that signals loss, of a person or relationship we cared about, or a goal or opportunity we hoped for. It shows up in the body as a heaviness or pressure in the chest and throat, and stinging, prickling, or wetness in the eyes. It’s the feeling most associated with crying, but crying can actually occur in response to any sufficiently intense emotion—I like to think of tears as the body’s way of flushing out an emotion that’s overflowing its container.
Identifying your emotions and the situations that cause them isn’t going to magically make you better at managing them—but it’s the first step, and that’s how every journey starts. May yours lead you to where you want to go.