Understanding PTSD Emotions

Why It's Important to Know Exactly What You're Feeling

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If you have PTSD, you may experience very strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, or shame, to name just a few. When you feel several of these PTSD emotions in quick succession, it can be very hard to know what you're feeling at any given moment.

If it often happens that you don't know what you're feeling, you may be headed for problems such as:

  • Feeling out of control and anxious about what emotion's coming up next
  • Feeling unable to manage your emotions and stay in control
  • Choosing an unhealthy way to cope with your PTSD emotions, such as avoidance or self-medication with illegal drugs or alcohol

In extremely upsetting situations, some people may use dissociation to distance themselves from all aspects of an emotion.

Why Is It Better to Know Exactly What You're Feeling?

Because when you know exactly what you're feeling, you have the right information for figuring out how to make yourself feel better. You can choose a way to cope with your PTSD emotions that is most likely to be effective.

But, you may be asking, aren't they all effective? Yes, but not every healthy coping strategy works the same for every emotional experience. For example, expressive writing might work better for sadness than for anger, where taking a "time-out" would probably work best.

How can you identify exactly what you're feeling?  First, you need to know the different forms emotions can take.

What Are the Parts of an Emotion?

Every emotion has three parts:

  1. Your Thoughts: Ideas or images that pop into your head when you're feeling an emotion
  2. Your Physical Sensations: The physical changes in your body (for example, increased heart rate, or nausea) when you're feeling an emotion
  3. Your Behavior: The action you feel like taking when you're feeling an emotion

    If you're like most people, with or without PTSD, you probably haven't been aware of the three parts of your emotions or the different ways those parts may affect how you feel. For example, sometimes one part, such as uncomfortable thoughts, can "come on" so strongly that it's difficult to get in touch with the others. If you were to experience this, you might simply try to push away or suppress your uncomfortable thoughts--which, of course, would keep you from identifying them and choosing an appropriate coping strategy that would make you feel better.

    Identifying Your Emotions According to Their Parts

    Listed below are some forms that the three parts of commonly felt PTSD emotions may take.

    Fear

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

    Sadness

    • Thoughts: "My situation is never going to change. I'm all alone in this."
    • Physical Sensations: Low energy, slower heart rate, nausea
    • Behaviors: Isolating yourself, crying

    Anger

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

    Next time you experience an emotion, try to identify all three parts of it. (If you can't, knowing even one or two can be helpful.) Then match them up against this list to see if you're feeling one of these three common PTSD emotions. If you don't get a match, use the three parts you've identified to further investigate what you're feeling.

    Choosing a Coping Strategy to Match Your Emotion

    Once you've identified at least one or two thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors connected to an emotion you're feeling, you can start thinking about the type of coping strategy that might be best for managing it. For example, if you're experiencing an emotion that causes increased heart rate and muscle tension, you may want to try a coping strategy to bring those physical sensations down, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.

    Now that you've learned how to identify your PTSD emotions, hopefully, you're feeling better about managing them. Fortunately, you can choose from a number of healthy coping strategies.

    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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