Are you feeling stressed, irritated, angry, or anxious? Want to express your emotions better or understand the emotions of those around you? Being able to name and identify your emotions is a key component of emotional literacy.
Humans experience thousands of emotions, but according to American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik, who spent years studying them, there are eight primary ones: joy, sadness, fear, anger, acceptance, disgust, surprise, and anticipation.
How to navigate the wheel
Designed to help you assess the complexity of emotions, the emotion wheel is a useful tool for evaluating your mental health. Feelings can feel too much sometimes, but what exactly does that mean? Give yourself permission to figure it out.
“There are no rules or wrong ways to use the wheel,” says Jessica January Behr, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and director of Behr Psychology. “The goal is to be exploratory and approach your inner world with a sense of openness.”
No matter if you’re using the Plutchik wheel, the Junto wheel, Gloria Wilcox’s feeling wheel, or any other, notice the major components, all of which serve a purpose:
The emotions are positioned strategically across from their opposites and alongside similar emotions. Fear, for instance, is placed opposite anger but alongside terror and apprehension. When you’re afraid, you tend to get more timid, but when you’re angry, you tend to get louder.
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The colors, which go lighter and darker, represent the intensity of the feeling. Lighter represents low intensity and darker represents high intensity, so acceptance is far less intense than admiration and serenity is far less intense than ecstasy. The no-color emotions listed on the Plutchik wheel are a combination of the two adjoining emotions. So anger and anticipation lead to aggressiveness and annoyance and boredom lead to contempt.
When you feel something strongly, a thought is circulating your mind, or there’s tension in your body, Dr. Behr recommends asking yourself the following:
What am I feeling right now?
Are you feeling more than one emotion at the same time?
Do you have memories of times when you felt similarly?
What is the history of your relation to this feeling?
“Notice if there are commonalities in what brings this type of feeling on,” says Dr. Behr.
If you’re feeling anxious at work, for example, Brittany P. Bate, PhD, founder and owner of Be Bold Psychology and Counseling, recommends identifying which emotions are nearby on the wheel. Anxiousness, for example, is near embarrassment and nervousness. Pay attention to your physical reaction. Perhaps you’re sweating or your heart is racing, or your hands are trembling.
When you can identify the feeling of anxiousness, you can then implement anxiety-reducing coping skills, such as positive self-talk, deep breathing, or visualization, Dr. Bate explains. Telling yourself “I can do this,” or imagining the ideal outcome can help you mitigate the feeling.
Increasing your awareness, Dr. Behr explains, can help you change the nature of your thoughts.
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The manifestation of feelings
“Emotions manifest from a combination of our lived experiences, our environment, our thoughts, expectations, and our nervous system's regulating patterns,” says Dr. Behr. “The emotion wheel can be helpful because it is portable and convenient and can bolster your practice of becoming more aware and in tune with your emotions.”
Spending 40 hours (or more) per week on work, you’re bound to experience a wide range of emotions: anger, frustration, irritation, embarrassment, excitement, anxiousness. If you want to re-adjust your emotions, aim to feel something different, or simply manage your reactions, pay attention to the way your feelings manifest.
According to Dr. Bate, manifestations have a cognitive or experimental, behavioral, and/or psychological component. If you're told you have to present at a meeting in three hours, for instance, you might have a cognitive-behavioral reaction. You might think, “I am going to look like a complete idiot,” and clear your schedule to prepare for the presentation. If your emotions go unaddressed, you could end up forgetting words or stumbling through the presentation.
Embracing your emotions
“Having emotions is what makes us human,” says Dr. Behr. “We should not aim to get rid of emotions entirely, even negative ones.”
Sometimes emotions can be overwhelming, but life without a full range of emotions can lead to overactive defense mechanisms, Dr. Behr explains, such as denial, repression, or suppression.
“With more consciousness comes more deliberate and purposeful action, as opposed to reactions which are automatic and unprocessed, says Dr. Behr.
If you’re feeling that your emotions are hindering you or negatively impacting your life or ability to function, Dr. Behr explains, you should consider speaking with a mental health professional who can help you understand the source of the emotions or how to manage them in a healthier way.
Your mental health should be prioritized every day and the emotion wheel is just one useful tool. Print it out, add it to your wall, or keep a version on your phone for easy access. And the next time your friend, spouse, or manager asks how you are or you feel those familiar physical manifestations arise, you can turn to your wheel and identify, with more confidence and accuracy, exactly how you’re feeling.
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Read more: 4 Grounding Techniques to Keep You Calm
About our sources
Jessica January Behr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the director and founder of Behr Psychology. She is psychodynamically trained and influenced, with a patient-centered and eclectic therapeutic approach, and provides treatment for mood, adjustment, personality and addictive disorders, as well as for serious mental illness.
Brittany P. Bate, PhD, is the founder and owner of Be Bold Psychology and Counseling. She graduated with her doctorate in clinical psychology from Sam Houston State University with an emphasis in forensic psychology and completed her predoctoral internship at the federal prison in Butner, NC.