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Increasing Emotional Awareness

How to Better Understand What You Are Feeling


Updated June 19, 2014

Learning ways to increase your emotional awareness is important if you are someone with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People with PTSD often experience intense and frequent uncomfortable emotional experiences. As a result, they may feel as though their emotions are unpredictable, out-of-control, and hard to identify. Not knowing what emotions you are experiencing will make it harder to address those emotions through healthy coping skills. To effectively manage our emotions, we first need to know what we are experiencing.

Levels of Emotional Awareness

Your awareness of any given emotion falls on a spectrum ranging from no awareness to complete awareness. Drs. Lane and Schwartz have divided this spectrum into six separate levels of increasing emotional awareness. These six levels are describe below:

  1. No Emotional Awareness: At this level, a person has no idea what they are feeling or that an emotion is even present. For example, a person may say that they "feel like a loser." However, this is not really an emotional state, but instead, an evaluation or judgment.

  2. Awareness of Bodily Sensations: Here, a person has some awareness of their emotions. However, they may only be aware of bodily sensations that they are experiencing, such as increased heart rate or muscle tension.

  3. Awareness of Behaviors: At this level of emotional awareness, a person is only aware of how they would like to act as a result of having some kind of emotion. For example, a person may say that they feel like they would like to leave a situation as quickly as possible (which may be an indication of fear or anxiety), or that they feel as though they could yell at someone (an indication of anger).

  4. Awareness that an Emotional State Is Present: At this stage, a person is aware that an emotion is present; however, they may have a hard time figuring out exactly what emotion is there. For instance, a person may have enough awareness to know that they feel "bad" or "overwhelmed" but nothing more specific than that. This is sometimes referred to as an undifferentiated emotional state.

  5. Differentiated Emotional Awareness: We are now getting to the top levels of emotional awareness. At this level, a person is aware of discrete emotions that are present. A person is able to identify the emotion that they are experiencing at any given point in time, such as sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, happiness, joy, or excitement.

  6. Blended Emotional Awareness: This is the top level of emotional awareness. At this level, a person is aware of multiple emotions that are present at the same time, including emotions that may on the surface appear to be in opposition to one another (for example, sadness and happiness). For example, a mother seeing her child go off to school for the first time may be very happy to see her child reaching this milestone but also sad to see that her child is growing up so quickly.

Increasing Your Emotional Awareness

There are a number of ways of increasing your emotional awareness. First, it can be important to increase your knowledge of emotions. For example, what is the purpose of an emotion? What function do they serve? What makes up different emotions? Learn more about how to identify your emotions.

Once you feel as though you have a good understanding of what emotions are, the best way to increase your emotional awareness is through monitoring your emotions. Here are some ideas on how you can start monitoring your emotions

Remember, as with any skill, increasing your emotional awareness may take some time and hard work. However, even if you can't identify everything you are feeling, you can use the information you have to better figure out the emotion you are experiencing. For example, if you know that your heart is racing and you have thoughts that something bad might happen, chances are you are experiencing anxiety or fear because these are common experiences associated with anxiety and fear.

The more we know about the all the different experiences and feelings that make up an emotion, the better able we will be in moving up the emotional awareness ladder. Practice monitoring your emotions to increase your emotional awareness. Good emotional awareness can provide a solid foundation for other coping skills.


Lane, R.D., & Schwartz, G.E. (1987). Levels of emotional awareness: A cognitive-developmental theory and its application to psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 133-143.

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