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Illustration by Maya Chastain

Have you ever said that you had “cold feet,” “a gut reaction,” or “a shiver down your spine”? You probably didn’t think anything of it, but those cliches have more truth to them than you might think. Emotional body mapping can show you why.

In the same way anxiety and depression can cause physical symptoms, emotions can “feel” like they’re gathering in one or more parts of your body. Feelings are our primary way of interacting with the world, yet many of us don’t pause and unravel how they impact us.

If you’ve ever had trouble naming an emotion, understanding the concept of physical feelings and where they live may help you feel more in tune with your body.

Body mapping might not be a concrete solution for everyone, but if you’ve ever needed a little help deciphering your feelings, this could be a good place to start. Plus, we spoke to somatic therapists for tips on tuning in when you’re ready to better connect with your body.

You may have heard of the emotion wheel, which can help you categorize emotions to better understand what you’re feeling. Emotional body mapping is another option, and, as with the wheel, its efficacy depends on the person.

The research on body mapping is limited so far. Enrico Glerean, the computational and statistics expert for two studies on body mapping, says the researchers are “collecting some more data, but experiments are still in progress, so it is too early for preliminary results.”

So think of the body map as a tool that, like medications, isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s just one piece in a bigger kit for learning how to communicate with your body.

Based on a 2014 study by Glerean and his colleagues, these are the 13 emotions and the corresponding body parts they activate (or don’t activate). Like on a heat map, increased activity corresponds with warmer colors (red, orange, yellow), while decreased responses correspond with cooler colors (blue, green, indigo).

If you find these maps to be accurate to your feelings, it may help you understand metaphysical changes and how emotions impact your well-being.

How did they test this?

To create these body maps, researchers hypothesized that different emotions correspond with different physical reactions. They asked 701 people to color in on a body silhouette the regions where they felt increasing or decreasing activity as they reacted to various stimuli.

The stimuli they were exposed to were much like what we encounter in real life: snippets of movies, conversations, and surprise facial expressions. The results showed that, for the participant pool, different emotions consistently impacted similar areas of the body.

A 2018 study conducted by the same researchers found that the intensity of emotions was directly linked with the intensity of mental and physical sensations. In other words, the stronger the feeling is in your body, the stronger the feeling is in your mind.

This led them to believe that feelings can be categorized as follows:

  • negative (unpleasant), such as anger, fear, anxiety, and shame
  • positive (pleasant), such as happiness, love, and pride
  • illnesses
  • homeostasis
  • cognition

Very few emotions, like surprise, are simply neutral.

Participants also saw that pleasant and controllable states were more frequent than unpleasant and uncontrollable ones. If you’ve ever felt anxiety or depression get the better of you, you might understand the feeling of not being in control.

“Sometimes they are so subtle that it takes time to form the vocabulary to describe them,” says Tanmaya George, a certified somatic experiencing practitioner. To physically feel out an emotion and name it, you’ll need to slow down. For this, she recommends a mindful body scan.

“Feelings, or fear, can be frozen so that we experience numbness instead of sensations,” she says. “That is linked to shock, and as we start to heal, the shock melts and the underlying sensations do come to the surface.”

Tuning in with your body and paying attention to where you feel heightened sensations is the best way to locate a feeling. George urges her clients to focus on grounding their bodies. If you find yourself falling into a black hole of despair, use her directions to get back on track:

  1. Move your feet and hands gently and rub them against a surface to feel your extremities, and then connect to how that feels.
  2. Look for comforting shapes or objects and allow yourself to take some time to absorb the experience of looking at them. How does it make you feel?
  3. What sensations develop as you take in the smell, shape, color, and sound?
  4. Gently orient yourself in the room and look at everything as if you were seeing it for the first time.
  5. Take your focus away from the discomfort. You can also bring comforting self-touch to the area that is feeling discomfort and sense the warmth of your hand.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of It’s Not Always Depression, also has tips for when an emotion is dominating a certain part of your body, such as anxiety in your stomach. She suggests decreasing stimulation by going into a dark room (if possible) and tuning in to your stomach by doing deep belly breathing.

“Deep belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve,” says Hendel. “The vagus nerve is the nerve that emotions trigger that runs through every organ in the body. When we deep breathe, it stimulates the calming portion of the vagus nerve. By breath five or six, you start seeing the change.”

“Once you are doing this deep breathing and approaching yourself with curiosity, compassion, and kindness, then you want to try to identify and name all the emotions that are coming up and to get a handle on what is triggering you.”

Grounding yourself is another helpful tip for when you’re feeling heightened emotions in your body. “Putting your feet on the floor lets your brain know that there is ground underneath you. This sounds so simple, but these are things that calm the brain down,” Hendel says.

“The thing about emotions is that you have to experience them,” says Hendel. “You cannot think your way out of an emotion.”

Connecting your mind and body is integral to your overall well-being. In fact, according to Hendel, ignoring, burying, or blocking your emotions may contribute to more illnesses. For example, when your mind-body connection is weak, you may neglect your emotional and/or physical health.

Or you may feel shame surrounding emotions, such as depression. For this, Hendel wants to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with you. Sometimes your environment can be hurtful and cause you to internalize a “literal, bad physical feeling.” Or, like anxiety, these sensations of not feeling good enough can manifest physically in your body.

Thankfully, Hendel also says that demystifying emotions can help people stop being overwhelmed by them. According to the previously mentioned 2014 study, identifying emotional changes can help us understand emotional processing and identify mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

This body map should not be used in place of a mental health professional. Like an emotion wheel, the body map an innovative concept to help identify emotions, especially during difficult times. And as is the case with an emotion wheel, what sounds right to you may hold a slightly different meaning for someone else.

For example, you could be happy because you’re feeling optimistic, which is very different from feeling content or relaxed. In the same way, anxiety might make you want to run or lie down under the covers.

Before building your mental health toolkit, it’s best to talk to a professional. Even if you believe somatic therapy is right for you, a psychotherapist can help you gain a foundational understanding of your mental health first. They’ll also help you use any of the tools, from breathing to body mapping, in tandem.

Once you lay the groundwork, finding a body-oriented or somatic therapist is key, according to George. “In somatic therapy, we take the focus away from analyzing feelings and emotions and instead encourage clients to sense them in the body. By moving away from naming the feeling and instead connecting it to a sensation, we give space for the perception that it is, in fact, an energy, and this in turn allows for that energy to be released through the body.”

Juliana Ukiomogbe is a freelance writer who covers culture, wellness, books, and movies. You can follow her on Twitter.