Identifying & Describing Emotions

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Emotion Regulation

Identifying & Describing Emotions
DBT Self Help - Identifying and Describing Emotions

Emotion Regulation is the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy module that teaches how emotions work. It provides skills to help manage emotions instead of being managed by them, reduce vulnerability to negative emotions, and build positive emotional experiences. It’s very difficult to use the other skills in the module if you’re struggling to understand what you’re feeling. Luckily, DBT provides the framework for learners just beginning to analyze their emotions.

Being able to identify and describe your emotions is crucial to the Emotion Regulation module of DBT. To change the emotion you’re feeling, you must first identify and describe all parts of it. The following are all the steps in the emotional process.

1. Prompting event

Emotions can be either reactions to events in the environment or to things inside a person. These events and things are called Prompting Events. They prompt, or call forth the emotion. A person’s thoughts, behaviors and physical reactions prompt emotions. You might have an automatic feeling without thinking about it, like “I feel love when I see my cat.”

What triggers it or gets it going? Prompting events can be events happening in the present (an interaction with someone, losing something, physical illness, financial worries).  A prompting event might also be a memory, a thought, or even another feeling (you feel ashamed, and then feel angry about feeling ashamed, for example). In managing your emotions, it is important to be able to recognize prompting events.

2. Interpretation of an event or experience

Most events outside ourselves don’t prompt emotions. It is the interpretation of the event that prompts the emotion. The emotion comes after the interpretation is made. It is triggered by the explanation you create in your head.

Here’s a chart of some examples of how events lead to interpretations which lead to emotions:

Seeing your boyfriend with your best friendThey must’ve been talking about youAnger
Your car has a flat tireSomeone did thisAnger
It starts to stormYou’ve heard of people being killed by lightningFear
You see Maya at the concert with Leo after she promised to go with youMaya doesn’t care about youSadness
You see Maya at the concert with Leo after she promised to go with youMaya is trying to get back at youAnger

As you can see in the last two entries in the chart, the same event can lead to different emotions based on your interpretation. Remember that your interpretation isn’t always factual. It is valid, but not fact.

3. Body Response to Emotions

When you experience emotions, there are changes in your body. Sometimes people have trouble sensing their body changes. To regulate your emotions you have to be pretty good at sensing what is going on in your body. If you have practiced shutting off our body sensations, this can be difficult. However it is a learned response and you can unlearn.

Emotions involve body changes such as tensing and relaxing muscles, changes in heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature and color, increases and decreases in blood pressure, etc. The most important of these changes for you to be aware of are the facial changes: clenched jaw, tightened cheek and forehead muscles, tightened muscles around the eyes so that they widen or narrow, grinding teeth, loosening and tightening around the mouth.

Take note of your posture and facial expression. Are you hunched over, trying to make yourself smaller? Are you smiling? What are your hands doing? Are they open, willing hands or are you wringing them? These seemingly small changes communicate a lot about how you’re feeling.

Researchers now believe that changes in the facial muscles play an important part in causing emotions. That’s why Half-Smile works.

4. Action Urges

Emotions involve what are called action urges. An important function of emotions is to prompt behaviors. For example if you feel angry, you may be prompted to fight. Or if you feel fear, you may be prompted to run.

The action itself, the fighting, or running, or hugging is not part of the emotion, but the urge to do the action, the feeling that prompts you to do the action, is considered part of the emotion. For example, if you feel angry at someone, you may feel an urge to start yelling at them. That urge is part of the angry feeling. But the fighting is not part of the feeling.

5. Expression and Communication

One of the most important functions of emotions is to communicate. In order to communicate something, an emotion has to be expressed. Sometimes, if you have not learned to express your emotions, you may think you are communicating but the other person isn’t getting it. This can cause misunderstandings.

Emotions are expressed by facial expressions, words and actions. Expressing emotions through behaviors can also cause problems, because different people interpret behaviors in different ways.

6. Emotion Name

It can be difficult to name your emotion if you’re not used to examining your feelings. With practice, however, you can become an expert.

Some things interfere with observing and describing emotions. One of these things is secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are those that come after the original emotions For example, you might feel angry, and then you might feel shame for feeling angry. Or you might feel sad, and then feel angry about the sadness. This makes it harder to figure out what was your original emotion and to work on dealing with that. Ask yourself, “Was that my first feeling?”

Some people also often feel ambivalence, or more than one emotion at the same time, like both anger and sadness when someone dies or goes away. This is totally natural.

Use this wheel to help you determine your primary (the innermost circle) and secondary emotions.

7. After Effects

Emotions have after effects on our thoughts, our physical function and our behavior. Sometimes these effects can last quite a while. One after effect is that an emotion can keep triggering the same emotion over and over. This creates a cycle of suffering.


Brainstorm some prompting events, emotions, or action urges and fill out the following worksheet based on each one just for practice. Then use the worksheet next time you experience a strong emotion. Writing it down will not only help you understand, but also give you some distance from the situation that can allow you to reach Wise Mind.

Here’s an example of the chart filled out:

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