I stumbled upon my first Feelings Wheel early on as a therapist intern. At first, I used it for my own work to help me identify what I was feeling with my partner as my limited vocabulary around emotions meant I was not accurate with my communication.
How to Use The Feelings Wheel
To increase my vocabulary, I would read each word on ’the wheel’, pause and see if the word had a felt sense someplace within me. If I didn’t feel anything quickly I would move on to the next word. When a word or words produced a little something—a slight pang of familiarity, a tingle or tightness in my belly or chest—I would take a longer pause and reflect on the word and feeling at the same time.
I called this ‘poking myself with the wheel’, and over time the pokes helped me to process feelings that had been held inside me for a very long time. It was uncomfortable and sometimes painful, but the side effects were not only an improved vocabulary, but also better communication and dialogue with my partner and clients.
Name It to Tame It
When I decided to bring the wheel into the therapy room, I noticed how some clients were eager to label what they were feeling and others would briefly glance at the wheel and then put it down.
There are no right or wrong answers with the wheel, but I did notice that the clients who were open to exploring and ‘poking’ themselves with the words on the wheel would feel better after our session, as well as in between sessions.
For these clients, the wheel was a bridge of sorts to introduce ways they could slowly tolerate the discomfort of these emotions and help them express what they needed from loved ones or friends to soothe and comfort the pain.
Turns out, there is a bunch of research on this that psychiatrist and author Dr. Dan Siegel calls ‘name it to tame it’, which is a fun way to describe the way the left and right hemisphere respond to emotions being labeled and in turn calm our whole system down.
A research study conducted by UCLA professor of psychology, Matthew D. Lieberman, found that when we feel angry we have increased activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and setting off a series of responses to protect the body from danger. Lieberman and team
found a noted a decreased response in the amygdala when the feeling of anger was labeled and talked about by the participant, which in turn increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in processing emotions).
According to Lieberman:
When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light -- when you put feelings into words you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.
The Effect of Mindfulness on the Amygdala
The research team also found that participants who practiced mindfulness had more right brain activation, which in turn lessened the activation of the amygdala. The findings suggest that mindfulness meditation is key to regulating the emotional responses connected to an activated amygdala.
Spend some time with the feelings wheel and see for yourself if connecting labels that accurately describe what you are feeling helps to decrease the intensity of what you are experiencing.
While contemplating The Feelings Wheel, we recommend you inhale and exhale deeply in order to send your body a signal of safety.
-Cyndi Collen, LCSW
If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder, coupled with chronic illness and/or digestive problems, you could benefit from the integrative nutrition and mindfulness-based treatment options available at Flourish!