The Zen of Anxiety: How to Identify and Express Feelings

image zen green teaNo one ever died from their feelings, but millions have died from abusing substances in the name of avoiding their feelings.

Last week’s post tackled suburban alcoholism. Some argue that anxiety and alcoholism are the cause and the cure for avoiding love, hate, apathy and a host of other feelings.

“He loves the bottle more than he loves me.”

“If she wasn’t so damned cold, I wouldn’t need the warmth and comfort of whiskey.”

“How do I feel? Just numb, really.”

Just as alcohol plays a role in denying feelings, healthy emotional expression contributes to happiness. People who are content express their wants, needs, frustrations, and dreams. They also feel less anxious.

If you want to feel better, you must understand how to “feel” your feelings.

One solution is to get in touch with your ‘inner life.’

It’s common and healthy to question your feelings: Why do I feel like this?; What exactly do I feel?; I don’t feel anything—what’s wrong here?; Where does my body store feelings?

The purpose of this post is 1) to help increase your awareness of feelings and 2) to offer tools and strategies for identifying and expressing feelings more readily.

7 facts about feelings:

1. Feelings, unlike thoughts, involve a physical reaction which often “takes over” the body. Anxious feelings cause increases in heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and even shaking or trembling. It’s common to vividly remember the physical sensations of a panic attack, but recall very little of the thoughts and fears that precipitated it.

Solution: Get out of your head and tune into your body. Although you can’t see your brain’s limbic system or your autonomic nervous system (where feelings are stored), you can close your eyes and focus on regular, conscious breath until you feel more centered, calm, and relaxed.

2. Feelings do not just appear “out of the blue.” Feelings are a direct result of your thoughts and perceptions. As out of control, intense, and scary the emotion, it’s important to remember that you created it. Further complicating anxious feelings is the unconscious.

Solution: Keep a journal of your most prevalent thoughts throughout the week. Identifying thoughts and the corresponding feelings helps you recognize unhealthy patterns. Some thoughts may be so automatic that you don’t realize how prevalent they are until you see them on paper. Pay close attention to thoughts that don’t correspond to reality. “I just know I’m going to have a panic attack during the presentation” is likely not realistic if you have a good track record regarding public speaking.

3. Feelings are categorized as simple or complex. Think of basic or simple emotions like anger, sadness, grief, fear, love, or excitement. Basic feelings tend to be short-lived, reactive, and are more tied to the physical changes in the body. More complex feelings include disappointment, weariness, impatience, and ambivalence. Complex feelings are a combination of more than one simple emotion, usually last longer, and are more involved in thought and rumination.

Solution: Distinguish basic from complex emotions to sort out what’s going on, and reinforce that feelings do not always come in pure form, but rather in mixtures. For example, hiking in the woods and confronting a bear is a basic emotion (fear) with an identifiable trigger (the bear). This is a pure feeling. Free-floating or generalized anxiety (without an obvious object or trigger) is a complex emotion. Think of the mixture of anger, guilt, and love that you feel when arguing with your partner, child, or close friend.

4. Feelings give you energy. When you are clear, you are more apt to share your life. We’re all wired to connect with others, and these connections serve as a buffer against a constricted and isolated existence. If you withhold or suppress feelings, you go through life experiencing a certain numbness or emptiness.

Solution: When stuck or listless, ask yourself these two important questions: 1. What do I want? 2. How do I feel?

5. Feelings can be contagious. You’re likely to feel sad, weepy, and depressed when in the company of someone who’s crying. Conversely, if you surround yourself with happy, enthusiastic company, their positive vibes rub off on you.

Solution: The more “in touch” with your inner life, the less prone you are to “catch” the negative emotions of those around you. Observing the environment means you are objective about the actions of others and cognizant of how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to their reality. Sometimes it’s not about you.

6. Feelings are not “right” or “wrong.” Feelings exist as reactions. Think of how automatic your body’s response to breathing or hunger pangs. There’s no escaping feelings.

Solution: Anger, jealousy, joy, fear, and guilt are not necessarily valid or invalid. However, your perception of the situation or the person you interact with and the subsequent feelings which arise may be skewed, incorrect, or invalid. Remember they’re your feelings, and someone in the same situation may feel differently.

7. Unexpressed feelings can be as damaging as secrets. When you feel something, find your words and speak on it. You have a right to express yourself. Nobody deserves emotional abuse.

Solution: Write a letter communicating your feelings. This is useful if the person is not available physically. Think ex-spouse, partner, or a deceased parent. Express all feelings, positive and negative. Read the letter to a trusted friend, or keep it private. Sometimes reading aloud makes the sentiment more real. You decide if you want to send the letter or not.

Lastly, I want to thank Samantha Bangayan of for her comment on anxiety. She gave me the idea for this post, and if you benefited from her inspiration, please hit me up at or in the comments section below for any questions you have about anxiety. You should really check out Samantha here, too.


What are your feelings about feelings?

If you liked this post, please leave a comment/share on your favorite social media site.

Go mental health!



{Photo: DrShapero via Flickr}

About Linda Esposito

Hi there! I'm an Anxiety Saboteur and the creator of the soon-to-be retired If you want to join me on Wired for Happy click this link to subscribe for details.

18 Responses to "The Zen of Anxiety: How to Identify and Express Feelings"

  1. (Mr. Cynical) DaveNo Gravatar says:

    What are my feelings about my feelings? I’m still trying to figure out what “the zen of anxiety” means.

    OK I’ll stop with the avoidance already. Feelings are to be closely guarded if you don’t understand them yourself.

  2. Alison Golden - The Secret Life of a Warrior WomanNo Gravatar says:

    “No one ever died from their feelings, but millions have died from abusing substances in the name of avoiding their feelings.”

    What a great quote! Is that a Linda original? I have been musing recently about online behavior being yet another (socially acceptable) method for avoiding feelings.

    Ugh. I feel I am constantly battling for the opportunity to *feel* my feelings. My default is to avoid them! I have to be on alert for these traps all the time.

  3. 7 Facts About Feelings | Paul Elmore says:

    [...] want to say thanks to Linda at for  pulling this information together originally. I STRONGLY recommend you read her entire post. [...]

  4. 7 Facts About Feelings Everyone Should know | Smart Therapist says:

    [...] Linda, from, has provided an excellent, reader-friendly explanations of emotions. Below is a condensed version of her full post, which I suggest you read in it’s entirety. [...]

  5. PaulNo Gravatar says:

    I also thought the quote about “no one ever dying from their feelings” was golden. When working with my clients—especially men—I am constantly having to teach how important it is to become aware of your emotions and how they are affecting your physical body and behaviors.

    I so appreciate the connection to the physical body as well. Identifying where the feelings are being felt has been one of the best tools I’ve offered my clients.

    With your permission, I’ve posted a condensed version of this post on our site and given you full credit and a link back to this original post. I also think this is so good I am asking your permission to offer it as a printed handout to be made available for clients as an primer of what they might be experiencing. (If this is a problem, just let me know and I’ll be happy to remove it.)


  6. MartinNo Gravatar says:

    This is very interesting Linda.

    I am an Englishman and we, of course, don’t talk about feelings. They’re considered to be rather vulgar things, not to be mentioned in polite company.

    For example, “How are you?” in England is not a question to be taken literally.

    Ours is a culture of stiff upper lips, getting on with it and ‘mustn’t grumble’. As Pink Floyd put it: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”.

    So, my feelings tend to be like a long armed jack-in-a-box on a very powerful spring. I spend most of my time holding down the lid of the box, but the catch is faulty, so every so often out pops the jack, arms flailing. Wonderfully conducive to mental wellness, of course.

    I shall send this post to the Prime Minister (or at least bookmark it on Digg – I’m sure he’s a Digger) as I think it’s essential reading for all English people.

    Seriously, this is a superb post Linda. Thanks.

  7. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    Oh, Dave–what can I say?? I’m a therapist, not a copywriter, OK?:P.

    Love the boundaries of keeping the feelings in check before expressing them. If we don’t understand our own process we run the risk of projecting our shit onto others. We’re all guilty, but there’s no need to spread more crap around.

  8. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    @Alison–unfortunately, it’s a modified quote that I picked up online…

    Could not agree more with the avoidance that comes with social media. I spent the better part of today on Twitter and FB. True that-not all was lost on frivolity, and I did get the chance to quip and banter with some really cool peeps, but ask me if the house is in order…

    Thanks for your support, as always:).

  9. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    @Paul–Welcome! It’s so great to connect with other MH professionals–especially the males. I’m so happy to meet online and check out what others are doing in their PP biz’. Your sites are very nice–can’t wait to read more about the good work you’re doing in Portland. I wasn’t kidding when I said that I love your city.

    Thank you for linking to my site–I really appreciate it:). It’s all about sharing in the name of mental health. Especially for the guys, though most people would not approve of me stating that…

    Look forward to connecting in the near future!

  10. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    Martin–I adore the POV from an Englishman. Might I add that @Alison via The Secret Life of a Warrior Women is a UK transplant?? She does a charming Scottish accent on her home page, btw…

    I can’t express how grateful when the men show up here–there are just too many barriers re: men and mental health. I know the women and children suffer too, but I honestly believe the ‘man up’ (or stiff upper lip) attitude is detrimental on so many levels. Thank you for not only commenting on the males’ perspective, but also the northern European attitude.

    “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. That is so sad. It’s interesting b/c here in America we tend to have a colossal lack of boundaries (think Reality TV), so it’s a dichotomy worth dissecting…on another post, of course.

    Thank you for the kind words. Even if this doesn’t make it to Prime Minister Cameron.

  11. Alison Golden - The Secret Life of a Warrior WomanNo Gravatar says:

    Linda, I’m very impressed you know the name of the English Prime Minister! And yes stiff upper lip, I know aaaaaallll about that! So true amongst certain types although we have our own lack of boundaried reality TV types too. ;-)

  12. BethNo Gravatar says:

    This was very useful. I like the strategies and will use them at home and work.

    I really found the letter technique to be beneficial. I remember doing this in high school with a counselor after a bad breakup. I shouldn’t say this, but the best part was that she allowed me to burn it. Something about seeing all that stress and turmoil go up in smoke was just really calming.

  13. Samantha BangayanNo Gravatar says:

    First off, thank you soo much for the warm mention here, Linda! It really means a lot to me. =)

    I love all the facts you shared about feelings. It’s funny how we don’t know many, if not all, of these important facts. Just goes to show how we often live a life unanalyzed.

    I especially relate to your fourth point about how feelings give us energy and the benefits of being clear. I guess that’s why we always talk about how feelings can “bottle up.” There’s this general discomfort that comes with not being able to express ourselves naturally.

    Thanks for this amazing post, Linda! =)

  14. RochelleNo Gravatar says:

    Very interesting post. I love the quote at the beginning- so true!

  15. Why Anxiety Doesn't Suck | TalkTherapyBiz says:

    [...] One thing we can always control is  the attitude we choose. [...]

  16. amberlewterNo Gravatar says:

    I think awareness and acknowledgement of feelings is something that takes time and practice. There is so much social pressure to “just get over” things rather than “get through” them, which can be confusing. It important that we encourage more people to get in touch with their feelings on a regular basis, get comfortable with having feelings and stop numbing out. Great post!

  17. Linda Esposito (@TalkTherapyBiz)No Gravatar says:

    Absolutely, Amber :). If we would “feel” our feelings rather than fight, freeze, or flee, we’d be more adept at managing anxiety so it does not manage us.

    Yes–stop numbing out, too!

  18. HitenNo Gravatar says:

    One of the great lessons I’ve learnt is to become in tune with the emotions I experience. By doing so I have developed choice on whether to take notice of the emotion or just ignore it as I know I’m much more than my emotions.

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