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Emotions Are Physical

In 2003, I learned that emotions were physical experiences. It was an “Aha!” moment for me. Of course they are!

When an emotion is triggered in your brain, it sends a series of impulses all over your brain and body. Physically, each emotion contains a program that causes very specific physiological changes that ready us for action. We can sense these changes physically by paying attention to our bodies.

For example, when I feel sad, my body feels heavy, like it is weighted. When I feel ashamed, my body feels like it is shrinking and I’m curling inward. When I am excited, my body is filled with energy.

Each emotion will feel different inside. When I first learned this, I was curious why this had never occurred to me. I wondered why I never learned this in school.

Now, after some training and practice, I am aware that my brain and my body communicate in two different languages. One is the language of thoughts that speaks with words. The other is the language of emotional experience that communicates through physical sensations.

I used to only pay attention to the language of thoughts. I assumed thoughts controlled everything: both my emotions and my behaviors. Now I know this is false. In fact, if anything, emotions influence both our thoughts and our behaviors.

My body actually tells me my emotional state as soon as I slow down to listen. At any given moment, tuning into my body tells me whether I am calm, confident, in control, getting what I want, feeling stuck, feeling good about myself, feeling sad, feeling safe and much, much more. I can choose to ignore what my body is telling me or I can listen to its music and learn about how my surroundings influence me.

There is an amazing world inside you below the neck. It is driving much of what you think and feel and how you behave. Learn to listen and discover your self in ways you never thought possible.

Want to experiment with listening to your body? (As you play with the concepts below, remember not to judge whether you do an exercise correctly or incorrectly. If you need a goal, let it be that you try an exercise without judging yourself.)

A good place to begin tuning into your body is by paying attention to your breathing. Take 30 seconds to try putting language on aspects of your breathing.

“Am I taking long deep breaths or short shallow breaths?” Which one?

Notice where the breath goes: “Does it feel like I am breathing into my stomach or my chest?” Notice and label where your breath is going.

“Do I inhale longer than I exhale or exhale longer than I inhale?”

Extra credit: If it seems like your breath stops at your chest, see if you can play with it in a different way. Imagine breathing slowly and deeply, filling up your toes with air, then legs, then hips, on up to your head. Finally, notice whether deep breathing or shallow breathing makes you feel most calm and relaxed.

Congratulations for trying something new.

Tired guy photo available from Shutterstock

Emotions Are Physical

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She is author of the award-winning self-help book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s blog on emotions and how to use them for wellbeing is read worldwide.For more FREE resources on emotions and emotional health, visit:

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APA Reference
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). Emotions Are Physical. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.