What is a feeling, and how do we feel them? The definition of a feeling has become murky over time. You can physically feel something through touch or inner sensations, or a feeling can be something like being sad, happy, or anxious. Over time these definitions have become separate, when in reality, they are both very intricately connected. Culturally, feelings have become something that is embarrassing and should not be shown. However, studies suggest that suppressing feelings can have negative effects including higher overall stress levels, increases in blood pressure, and lower life satisfaction.1-3 So, feeling your feelings is actually important for your overall wellbeing. To better understand your emotions, we must first explore what emotion or feeling is.
According to Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her research on emotions, emotion is how you interpret sensory information from the body.4 For example, depending on the situation, you may interpret shoulder pain in different ways. If you just completed a workout or lifted something heavy, you may interpret your shoulder pain as muscle pain. But, if you are writing an exam or working with a deadline, you might interpret your shoulder pain as stress. Similarly, if you are sitting at the dinner table, you may interpret stomach pain as hunger, whereas if you are about to meet someone new, or are about to engage in a public speaking event, you may interpret the stomach pain as anxiety.4 In short, our physical feelings are interpreted by our brain through the stories we tell ourselves, then these stories are translated into emotions or feelings depending on what slot our brain files them into.
When it comes to the emotion or feeling itself, research conducted by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor suggests that when you are triggered by something in your environment, “there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”5 So, it takes 90 seconds for the initial emotion to clear, then whatever lingers after those 90 seconds encompasses thoughts, memories, stories, or preconceived notions you hold about that feeling, and you keep the feeling alive in your body through these continuing thoughts.
Research has also shown that the brain spends most of its energy on prediction and that these predictions are based on experience.6 This is why you may get anxious before a date, or experience excitement before riding a roller coaster. It is because your brain is applying your experiences doing these things from the past to the current experience. This process of applying past experience into current experience is also why you may get caught up in emotion rather than clearing it in the 90 seconds it takes to physiologically clear an emotion.
This may lead you to ask, how do you clear an emotion without falling into this thought and memory cycle? There are five steps to doing this.
Step 1: Identify that you are having an emotional reaction.7 This can come from both mental and physiological cues. Some common physiological responses to an emotional reaction include your heart beating faster, your chest, shoulders, or jaw tightening, your stomach hurting or feeling hot.
Step 2: Name the emotion. Say to yourself “I am feeling anxious” or whatever feeling you are experiencing. Try to do this without letting any opinions or judgments arise about the feeling.7
Step 3: Identify where the feeling is coming from. Take a deep breath and ask yourself where you feel this in your body. What does it physically feel like?8
Step 4: Observe the feeling moving through your body. Allow the feeling to pass through while observing it without trying to edit or change it. Stepping back from your feelings and emotions will allow them to pass following the 90 second rule. Observing without changing the feeling stops us from spiraling into memories, stories, or preconceived ideas about the feeling.7,8
Step 5: After the feeling has passed, return to the present moment.8 Try to shift your attention back to whatever it was you were doing before the emotional reaction was triggered.
These steps take time and practice, but the more you use this method and become familiar with the steps, the easier and more natural the process will feel. When you first start to feel your emotions, it can be uncomfortable, confusing, or scary; by beginning to understand your feelings, what a feeling is, and by practicing and following the above five steps you can learn to manage feelings more effectively.
Edited by Jeffrey Lynham & Curtis D'Hollander
1. Wastell, C. (2002, December). Exposure to Trauma: The Long-Term Effects of Suppressing Emotional Reactions. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 190(12), 839-845.
2. Roberts, N. A., Levenson, R. W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cardiovascular costs of emotion suppression cross ethnic lines. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 70(1), 82-87.
3. Nam, Y., Kim, Y., & Tam, K. (2017, October 23). Effects of Emotion Suppression on Life Satisfaction in Americans and Chinese. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(1), 149-160.
5. Robinson, B. E. (2020, April 26). The 90-Second Rule that Builds Self-Control. In Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-right-mindset/202004/the-90-second-rule-builds-self-control
8. Gunether, J. [@therapyjeff]. (2021, November 21). How to FEEL your feelings. I’m riffing off of emilyonlife from IG. #therapy #mentalhealth #therapytiktok #selfcare #feelings [Video]. TikTok.