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Your Emotions and PTSD

Identify Your Emotions So You Can Respond in a Healthier Way

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Updated July 16, 2009

A PTSD diagnosis can have a major impact on your emotions. People with PTSD may experience very strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, and/or shame (to name just a few). In addition, when all these feelings occur close in time to one another, it can be very difficult to decipher exactly what you are feeling.

Not knowing what you are feeling is connected with a number of negative consequences. By not knowing what you are feeling, your emotions may feel very unpredictable and out-of-control. As a result, you might find it difficult to effectively manage your emotions. When this happens, people often tend to rely on more unhealthy ways of managing emotions, such as avoidance and self-medication through the use of drugs and alcohol.

Your Emotions: Benefits of Increased Awareness

Knowing what you are feeling, on the other hand, helps you figure out how to make yourself feel better. Not every healthy coping strategy works the same for every emotional experience. For example, expressive writing might work better for sadness than anger, where taking a "time-out" would work best. When you know what you are feeling, you can better figure out exactly what coping strategy is needed for the specific emotion you are experiencing.

How do you identify what you are feeling? Learn how to get started better knowing and labeling what you are feeling.

What Makes Up an Emotion?

An emotion has many parts:
  1. Thoughts: Ideas or images that pop into your head when you are experiencing an emotion.

  2. Your Body's Response: The physical changes you experience (for example, increased heart rate, feeling queasy) when you experience an emotion.

  3. Behaviors: The things you want or feel an urge to do when you experience a certain emotion.

All the emotions you have are made up of these three parts (whether you are aware of it or not). Most people, however, are not really aware of these different parts. Sometimes one component is so strong that it makes it difficult to get in touch with the others. Other times, one part may be so uncomfortable that a person automatically "shuts down" that part. For example, a person may actively try to push away or suppress uncomfortable thoughts, and, in extreme cases, a person may use dissociation to distance themselves from all aspects of an emotion.

Identifying What Makes Up An Emotion

Knowing what thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors often accompany certain emotions can help you get in touch with your own. Listed below are some common experiences that accompany several emotions often experienced by people with PTSD.

Fear

  • Physical Sensations: Racing heart, "tunnel vision," shortness of breath
  • Thoughts: "I am in danger. Something terrible is going to happen."
  • Behaviors: Getting out of a situation, freezing, crying

Sadness

  • Physical Sensations: Low energy, slower heart rate, queasy feeling
  • Thoughts: "My situation is never going to change. I am all alone in this."
  • Behaviors: Isolating yourself, seeking out help, crying

Anger

  • Physical Sensations: Racing heart, muscle tension, jaw clenching
  • Thoughts: "Life is unfair. Everyone is out to get me."
  • Behaviors: Yelling, picking a fight with someone, slamming doors

Make up your own list like this. Next time you experience an emotion, try to identify all the different parts of it and then label that emotion.

Coping With Your Emotions

Once you have identified at least one or two things for each part of an emotion, think of what kind of coping strategy you might use to manage that emotion. For example, if you are experiencing an emotion that includes increased heart rate and muscle tension, you might want to try a coping strategy that will bring those feelings down, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing. There are a number of healthy coping strategies available that can be effective in managing uncomfortable emotional experiences.

Sources:
Gratz, K.L. (2008). Acceptance-based Emotion Regulation Group Therapy. Unpublished treatment manual.

Linehan, M.M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press.

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