Who doesn’t want to feel balanced, content, and well as often as possible? In our quest for good health, many people find it easier to focus on regiments for the body because the results are more tangible. It’s sometimes easier to understand the body’s basic needs. If you feel hungry, you can eat food. If you want to be stronger, you can weight train or add more protein into your diet. But to truly experience overall well-being, we must also consider the importance of understanding and caring for our emotions.
Our own thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our ability to manage challenging or painful situations, and how we recognize our emotions and the emotions experienced by others are all core elements of emotional health. Emotional wellness is part of how we survive, heal, and thrive in the face of adversity. A balanced emotional state is synonymous with positive and productive thinking through ups and downs. When our mental health is consistently strong, in good times and in hard times, it’s not only a sign of our resilience, it’s also an indicator we know how to recover from stress, grief, disappointment, etc.
Everyone experiences negative emotions at times. It is how we acknowledge and respond to these basic feelings that truly demonstrates our emotional health, recognizing that so much that happens in life is out of our control. Our responses and actions can be improved by fortifying our emotional health skills (most of us need some practice!) in order to prepare for the unexpected, which is simply a hallmark of the human experience. Everything from our physical health and genetics to the environments where we spend our time (home, work, school, etc.), and many other factors, can impact our emotional wellness.
Whereas mental health is a term used to describe how the mind is understanding and processing life experiences and the information the brain receives on a daily basis, emotional health is more about the management and expression of the emotions that come up as we learn and experience things. You can have good health in one area and poor health in another, or both can be doing well or badly at the same time. One isn’t necessarily always connected to the other; mental health deals largely with cognition, decision-making, logic, etc. and emotional health is rooted in the ability to navigate feelings, to understand and articulate through an “emotionally intelligent” vocabulary what exactly you are feeling.
It’s hard to imagine putting a number on the variety of emotions humans can experience. Translating how emotions are expressed across cultures is another unique challenge. Take “gemütlichkeit” in German, “often used to describe a pleasant feeling you get when surrounded by people you love in a cozy setting … both a physical and metaphorical feeling of warmth”, or “ailyak” in Bulgarian, which although not possible to literally translate, describes “the subtle art of doing everything calmly and without rushing, whilst enjoying the experience and life in general.” If you speak more than one language, how many similarly poetic words and phrases can you think of that can unlock a whole other world of emotions and life philosophies? With so many linguistic and cultural nuances, narrowing down what could be reasonably considered “universal” seems nearly impossible, which is why it fascinates researchers.
In White Oleander, Janet Fitch writes: “What can she possibly teach you, twenty-seven names for tears?” Not including combinations of different emotions, a recent study by The Greater Good Science Center is widely referenced as revealing the true number of distinct emotions: 27. Others have argued that number hovers around 25, but one tool has distilled the vast range of emotional possibilities into an astoundingly small base number: six to eight. The tool is called The Feeling Wheel, and the two most widely used versions consist of six or eight “buckets” or core groups of emotions. While the specific number of emotions a person can experience may not matter, having a baseline may help us begin challenging conversations about our feelings, and may provide a starting point for building our emotional IQs.
Another way to think about emotional health is to consider how emotionally resilient you are. In the face of a crisis, are you able to bounce back from the negative emotions that may arise, or do they persist after the stressor(s) have subsided? Do you fall apart when faced with frustration or loss, or are you able to view the situation with optimism, hope, and see an opportunity to learn and grow from it?
Many spiritual and folk medicinal traditions describe emotions as “living” or being stored in the body. These emotions can become “stuck”, often requiring some type of release, whether through cleansing, talk or somatics therapy, or other interventions. Sweaty palms, a pounding heart, tightening muscles, shaky legs … these are all examples of the body responding directly to our emotions in moments of heightened states of feeling.
Many studies have demonstrated that our emotional health is a type of preparation tool for when we’re faced with threats (real or perceived). Thus, emotions have the potential to activate our cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, skeletomuscular, and autonomic nervous system. The way our emotional and bodily states are connected is a feature of almost every language across cultures. In English, phrases like “getting cold feet”, “heartbroken”, “butterflies” in our stomach, or getting a “shiver” down our spine are all reflections of how we perceive feelings as catalysts for physiological changes.
When negative emotions are not managed properly, there are long-term consequences from the feeling or perception of oneself as helpless or hopeless. Chronic stress is one of the most common outcomes of negative attitudes. As a result, the brain’s “happy chemicals” may be depleted. We may also experience hormonal imbalances, hypertension, major cardiovascular and digestive issues, infections, and immune system damage. In sum, poorly managed emotions can actually shorten our lifespan if we ignore them.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, have some impressive benefits:
- inspire wonder, creativity, and options;
- broaden our perspective of the world;
- build lasting emotional resilience;
- promote faster recovery from cardiovascular stress;
- improve sleep and reduce illness (such as colds); and
- directly impact overall happiness and wellbeing.
(Source: University of Minnesota)
Some of the emotions scientifically proven to improve our health include:
- love and connection to others
Research that explores how the body expresses emotions remains somewhat limited, but some data about whole-body behavior does exist. For instance, diminutive and expansive body postures seem to be the result of embarrassment and pride, respectively. Facial behaviors are thought to be more common as reflections of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, because they are more adaptive functions for individual-level needs. Studies about facial expressions or changes in facial behavior have produced complex results because a person’s gender, race, culture, social status or context, etc. can all influence these subtle transformations. Facial behavior can easily be misinterpreted due to bias and cultural dissimilarity, whereas the body’s response to some core emotions tends to be viewed as more reliable.
Simply put, The Feeling Wheel is a tool to enhance emotional awareness by building our ability to identify, acknowledge, and vocalize our feelings. Here are three different version of the wheels you may find beneficial for your own personal growth and emotional wellness.
DR. GLORIA WILCOX’S FEELING WHEEL
In the early 1980s, Dr. Gloria Wilcox developed The Feeling Wheel to “aid people in learning to recognize and communicate about their feelings.” Its inner circle has six sectors and its outer circles are two concentric circles. The primary feelings—mad, sad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful—extend out to secondary feelings that offer more nuanced ways to identify and talk about emotions in a given moment. The Feeling Wheel includes 72 uniquely specific emotions, with one side categorizing “negative” feelings and “positive” feelings on the opposite side.
ROBERT PLUTCHIK’S WHEEL OF EMOTIONS
Rooted in what the psychologist and professor referred to as the Theory of Emotion, Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions includes eight primary emotions—ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement, grief, loathing, rage, and vigilance—at its center. He believed the behavioral responses with higher survival value, fear triggering fight-flight-freeze responses for instance, determined the emotional urgency of each “prototype” emotion, with all other emotions occurring as derivative states. Plutchik details his theory and its clinical implications in Emotions and Psychopathy.
DR. ALBERT WONG’S FEELINGS WHEEL 2.0
Recently, the somatics clinician and educator Dr. Albert Wong attempted to correct what he saw as a major error in the original feeling/emotion wheels from the 1980s. His belief that they “contained a number of words that were not feelings” led him to recreate the wheel, noting that “feeling disrespected” isn’t actually a way to describe emotions but rather representative of a story we have created, and that our resulting feelings could be anything from anger to delight, or even determination or sadness. While it may seem Dr. Wong’s take on the various wheels of emotions available today is splitting hairs, you may find one of these more useful than another, so we’ve included all three to give you the greatest opportunity to raise your emotional intelligence.
All three of the wheels we’ve listed above can be used in similar ways, but to get the most out of our mini-guide to The Feeling Wheel, we’re using Dr. Wilcox’s version. This version is one of the most widely accessible tools used by psychiatric professionals and mental health practitioners worldwide to help people get in touch with their emotional states, and to learn to discuss them with loved ones and others.
We suggest printing a copy of this (or whichever feeling wheel resonates most with you) feeling wheel to have handy, especially if you’re committed to improving your emotional health and have identified this as a present and pressing need in your life. After something happens to you, whether positive or negative, notice how the event makes you feel. Let’s say you’re feeling joyful after receiving a compliment. Take a look at the wheel and ask yourself what type of joy you’re feeling. Work to get as close to the specific emotion as possible. Would you describe the feeling as playful, sensuous, stimulating, amusing? Or, would another word best express your emotion?
If you don’t already have a journaling practice, writing out a simple daily check-in using The Feeling Wheel could be helpful. Take a few minutes to look at the wheel, without judgment or preconceived notions of how you should be feeling. Then, gravitate your attention to the center of the wheel and try to identify your core emotion. Maybe you were scared by something or someone. What secondary or tertiary feelings came up for you at that moment? Did you feel insecure, helpless, overwhelmed, etc.? Write out the words, and then whatever else comes to mind. If you’re feeling stuck, set a timer for five minutes to start, and freewrite until time’s up.
When a major life event happens (the loss of a job or a loved one, for example), it may be difficult to pin down the emotions we’re feeling, let alone try to express them aloud. When you’re ready to get some clarity, start by trying to look at the wheel’s inner band to determine what core feeling has been the strongest and most persistent over the past weeks or months. Let’s say you zoom in on anger. Is it jealousy that’s behind your angry feelings? Are you feeling frustrated or critical? Getting granular with your emotional vocabulary might help lead you to a course of actions that are illuminated by honest reflection, and The Feeling Wheel is one tool that can offer perspective.
FOR PARENTS + TEACHERS
Teen counselor and parent Kayla Lin recommends consistent practice to get the most out of The Feeling Wheel. Other times Lin considers the wheel to be of great use for parents are before a breakdown or during a shutdown. In the case of a breakdown, The Feeling Wheel can be a preventative tool that helps care for emotions before the young person explodes. For more quiet or introverted youth, it may be even harder to put feelings into words. Frequent check-ins may allow the educator or caregiver to offer opportunities to observe and discuss patterns, as similar situations may trigger similar feelings. Lin also suggests the wheel can help build empathy and may promote safer home and learning environments by providing a verbal framework for honest, open communication on a more regular basis.
Integrative Wellness and Life Coach Allaya Cooks Campbell links The Feelings Wheel to inner work, the type of personal improvement that leads to increased self-awareness. In Campbell’s assessment, there are two ways to approach this task, starting with the opposite of how you’re actually feeling. In other words, if you’re feeling sad because you haven’t been able to get a job in your desired field, you might look up “joy” on the wheel because it encompasses hope, energy, and excitement (what you’d rather be feeling). Alternatively, you could look up “sadness” and identify your more precise sentiments, which might be boredom and inferiority. Identifying your emotional triggers can be powerful keys to unlocking a different, more productive action plan.
BUILD EMPATHY FOR OTHERS
Lecturer and researcher Brené Brown calls empathy “a ladder out of the shame hole.” There is great potential in learning to share a language around emotions for us to deepen our interpersonal connections. Another famous quote laments that “most of love is lost” between the things we say but do not mean, and what we mean but lack the courage to say. For those struggling to understand each other, whether in romantic or professional connections or all sorts of other relationships, The Feeling Wheel offers a place to start the conversation. Teams or partners can especially benefit from trying to get deeper than the surface level of core emotions. Using The Feeling Wheel to discuss more subtle and often tender feelings can deepen empathy and build bridges toward mutual understanding of complex situations and emotions.