The Physical Sensations Behind Emotions: Improving Awareness of the Mind-Body Connection

physical sensations

When you experience an emotion, how does it feel in your body? Learn how to identify the physical sensations behind your emotions to become more self-aware and emotionally intelligent.

Our emotions are a complex experience that involve physical, mental, and behavioral processes.

The “physical” component includes the raw sensations and feelings in our body. The “mental” component includes our underlying thoughts and interpretations. The “behavioral” component is how we act in response to the emotion.

In the case of anger, the physical component may include increased heart rate, body temperature, and clenched fists. The mental component includes a thought such as “I can’t believe that guy cut me off on the highway!” and the behavioral component may include honking at the other car, flipping them off, or whizzing past them.

In general, poor emotional intelligence is often focused on the behavioral component. “I feel a certain way, so I react to it.” There’s very little buffer between feeling the emotion and responding to it.

As one improves their emotional intelligence, that buffer between feeling and response gets bigger – and that’s ultimately what leads to more freedom and choice in how you react to your feelings.

One way to create more space between your emotions and your responses is to pay more attention to the physical sensations behind your emotions. This helps cultivate the “self-awareness” aspect of emotional intelligence.

Step back and observe how your emotions feel in your body without needing to respond to them right away.

Instead, observe these raw sensations in the same way a scientist observes a specimen under a microscope – not trying to judge it or react to it, but simply observing the emotion as is.

This article covers the different physical sensations behind our core emotions and how we can identify them more clearly in the moment.

The Body Map of Emotions

One interesting feature of our emotions is that they often occupy different areas in our bodies.

In one popular study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked participants to map out the physical sensation behind various emotions using a topographical self-report tool.

    “In five experiments, participants (n = 701) were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.”

Their results found a consistent pattern between how each emotion was mapped onto the body. They also discovered that these maps seemed to be universal across different cultures (meaning they are likely rooted in our biology, not learned responses).

Here are the body maps for each emotion they tested:

body map emotions

Take a moment to analyze each emotion above and how it relates to your own experience of that emotion.

These body maps are an illustration of where emotions are “activated” in the body. They can be consider a visual depiction of emotional arousal, the degree to which an emotion activates our nervous system (especially the “fight, flight, or freeze” response).

One thing to note is the different intensity of emotions. For example, emotions like “happiness” and “anger” both rank as high activation emotions (a lot of red and yellow in the body maps), while emotions like “depression,” “sadness,” and “neutral” rank as much lower activation (a lot of black and blue).

The shape of the body maps also reveals some interesting insights. “Pride” tends to be more concentrated in the head (“Don’t let it get to your head”), “disgust” has a distinct shape in the stomach/gut (“His lying makes me feel sick”), and “happiness” seems to light up the whole body (“I’m filled with joy.”).

A lot of the language we use to describe our emotions may not just be metaphors, but literal descriptions of how we feel in our bodies.

Psychologists often refer to this as “embodied cognition.” The idea is that we don’t just think with our minds, we think with our entire bodies as well. Emotions are a great example of the intimate connection between mind and body.

Now let’s learn more about the physical sensations behind our emotions and how we can use this knowledge to become more emotionally intelligent.

Identify the Physical Sensations of Your Emotions

One of the most important aspects of being more self-aware is to identify the physical sensations behind your emotions while they are happening.

The more you understand the physical component of your emotions, the quicker you can recognize when an emotion arises before it builds and intensifies.

Here is a simple breakdown of the common sensations behind our core emotions:

  • Anger – Faster heart rate, increased body temperature, sweating, fast and short breathing, muscles tighten, clenched fists and/or jaw, pressure in head and/or chest.
  • Sadness – Fatigue, numbness, heaviness, low energy, muscle aches and pains, crying/watery eyes, tightness in chest, stinging in throat, decreased vision (things seem more blurry/less detailed), looking down, hunched posture, feeling empty.
  • Disgust – Nausea, stomach pains, gag reflex, moving head away, covering nose/mouth, physical repulsion (vomiting).
  • Joy – Feeling light/uplifted, energetic, buzzing/tingling, warm, balanced, open and upright posture, smiling, laughing.
  • Fear – Feeling cold, shortness of breath, chest pounding, sweating, shaking/trembling, sharpening of focus/vision, faster heart rate, tightening of muscles in arms or legs, running/freezing (“fight, flight, or freeze” response)
  • Surprise – Heightened attention/alertness, boost in energy, jump in heart rate, moving head, stepping backwards, shielding face, mouth open/jaw dropping.
  • Shame – Blushing/flushed face, head lowered, eyes closed or hidden, heaviness in chest, pressure in head, closed posture (trying to shrink/become invisible), nausea/”pit in stomach,” low energy levels.

There can be individual differences in how emotions are felt – especially depending on the person and the situation – but in general this is a good description of how most of these emotions are experienced on a raw physical level.

Often positive emotions tend to have an “expansive” feeling, while negative emotions have a “contracted” or “restricted” feeling. This aligns well with the broaden and build theory of emotions by Barabara Fredrickson.

Think of an emotion you want to learn how to manage more effectively. Picture yourself in a situation where you experience it then ask yourself, “What are the physical sensations I usually feel?”

Remember that your experience may be slightly different than the descriptions above, so it’s important you recognize how you experience that emotion.

Then it’s helpful to create a plan to manage your emotions – so when you become aware of the early physical signs, you can change course before letting that emotion build and take over your automatic reactions.

For example, you notice your heart rate increase and your fists clench – and you realize you’re starting to experience anger – so you decide to step back and take 10 deep breaths, ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” and then decide how you want to respond to it.

This is often a better strategy than just feeling anger and reacting to it impulsively and unconsciously, but it requires you to first be more attuned to your body and physical sensations.

Of course, being more emotionally intelligent is always easier said than done. Be patient with yourself. The next time you feel a strong emotion, consider the physical component of that emotion and use it as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and improve.

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