Understanding your emotions

05 October 2022

Think about the last time you felt stressed. It could have been last week, yesterday, this morning, moments ago - hence the reason why you're reading this article.

How did it feel? Probably not good. There will most likely have been a range of physical signs - a racing heart, sweaty palms, butterflies in your stomach, quicker breathing and/or tension in your body (especially your shoulders).

Your mind will probably have been racing with thoughts, worries and fears. 'This is all wrong', 'I can't cope', 'it's all too much', 'how can I fix this', 'why on earth did I do that', 'how's this all going to pan out'.

It may have led you to procrastinate or put off doing something or speaking to someone. Or comfort eating or drinking. It may have made you feel irritable, fearful, angry or aggressive. Or, conversely, just desperately tired, sad and disengaged.

Stress, it is clear, can manifest itself in many different ways. One of the most powerful - and problematic - ways in which stress can cause difficulties is the effect it can have on your mind, on your emotions and behaviours.

Understanding your emotions

In this vlog, Dr Julie Denning, a Chartered Health Psychologist and CBT therapist, focuses on managing stress and understanding your emotions.

Getting a handle on stress

The first thing to recognise when it comes to stress is that, even if you're feeling isolated, you're not alone. There are lots of resources and tools out there that can help you to get a handle on stress, its causes and effects, and exercises or techniques that can help.

To cite just a few, the NHS offers useful advice here and the mental health charity Mind has fantastic resources on its website, including this guide. More from a workplace perspective, the HR body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has a valuable suite of tools here.

Alongside this general advice, Dr Denning emphasises the key to unpicking how stress affects our behaviours and emotions is to break things down. We need to get underneath what she describes as "the big, emotional words" we tend to use when we're talking or thinking about stress.

As she puts it: "There is a tendency for us to use catch-all words - like that we're 'stressed', 'anxious', 'depressed' or maybe 'fed up'."

At one level, opening up in this way can be a useful starting point in helping us to talk about our emotions. However, it is can also be limiting or even counterproductive.

"If you're speaking to someone, for example, and they say 'I feel really stressed' and you reply 'yes, so do I', then you're both identifying as feeling stressed," Dr Denning explains. "But, actually, stress is a very individual thing. It's an individual response to a situation and sometimes it can be a misalignment as to what's going on if people are identifying around a singular word.

"For example, while you're feeling really stressed, the other person might actually be feeling frustrated. Another person might be feeling fearful. You're all using the same word 'stressed' but, actually, when you start to unpick it there's something else going on. And that's what's really important."

One way to do this is through using an 'emotions wheel', as Dr Denning now explains.

Using an 'emotions wheel'

You can easily find examples of emotions wheels online.

If you look closely at an emotions wheel, you'll see a lot of 'big' descriptors in the middle circle, words like 'sad', 'angry', 'fearful', 'happy', 'disgusted', 'bad', or 'surprised'.

These are useful but, more often than not, are not going to tell the whole story of what you're actually feeling. This will probably be a more complex (and even perhaps contradictory) mix of emotions. So, work your way out to some of the outer rings to see what other emotions are resonating (and you will need to be honest with yourself).

"Think about how you feel right here, right now, and look around that wheel. Find words that best describe that emotional sensation you're experiencing right now. Just reflect and try to find definitely more than one or two words. Really go around that wheel and see if you can identify more," advises Dr Denning.

"You might find that, actually, though you thought you were feeling stressed, when you think about the current situation you're in, you're actually simply really frustrated. Or cross. Or apprehensive. Or really fearful about something," she adds.

Breaking down what you're really feeling in this way can help it to become more manageable. "You can think, 'okay, I thought I was just stressed but actually I'm really frustrated, so what am I really frustrated about?'. And it can help you maybe to choose a different pathway for a solution. Or a different resolution or outcome," says Dr Denning.

This greater self-intelligence, this ability to step back and look at how, emotionally, you're responding to a situation, can also help you react in different, more positive ways. It may help you to anticipate how you will respond to certain situations - for example if a deadline has gone wrong or if a colleague is rubbing you up the wrong way - and work to avoid or mitigate them arising.

"When you have a better understanding of what you're feeling, it can help you to communicate it better to others too," adds Dr Denning. "That you're not just stressed, say, but actually really frightened and worried about something. It enables dialogue, it enables communication, and therefore enables better or more effective resolution."

The next time you're feeling under pressure and stressed, take a breath, pause, go over to your emotions wheel and work to understand what it is you're actually feeling. From there, break it down and think about solutions to manage or resolve that specific emotion.

"Sometimes it's just a question of recognising and accepting. Other times it's that, actually, you can do something about the situation. Either way, having those extra words, those deeper words, that deeper understanding, can really help you to move forward," Dr Denning adds in conclusion.

About Dr Julie Denning and the author

Dr Julie Denning is the Managing Director of Working to Wellbeing and Chair, Vocational Rehabilitation Association.

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.