Updated: Apr 17
A feelings wheel can help you or your clients recognize, accept, and cope with difficult emotions.
Is that feeling sad or hurt? Mad or embarrassed?
Many of us have trouble identifying our emotions, especially in the midst of them.
An emotions wheel, also called a feelings wheel, can help you or your clients better understand what you’re experiencing.
Plutchik’s Original Wheel
The idea of a feelings wheel likely originated with psychologist Robert Plutchik (Plutchik, 1982). Although many modern feelings wheels include dozens (if not 100+) emotions, he actually wanted to narrow them down, not expand on them.
He believed there was too much variation in language around feelings, and he wanted to clarify it.
He decided on 8 primary emotions, including:
Plutchik believed that emotions evolved as survival mechanisms, and that animals experience them as well.
He also theorized that emotions come in dyads, where two primary emotions make up a third. For example, fear combined with surprise make up the feeling of awe.
Over time, people have built on his idea of using a wheel to identify and understand human feelings. Most often, people use such wheels to choose an emotion that seems to match what they're experiencing.
“What are you feeling?”
It has become common for therapists to use emotion wheels in sessions. It’s a handy way to help clients respond to statements like, “What’s that feeling you’re having?”
Your counselor might hand you a laminated wheel with a whole bunch of emotions, either in a list or as part of a color wheel.
I too find these tools to be helpful, however I’ve found that so many emotions to choose from can be a bit overwhelming and distracting. It doesn’t really matter if someone can tell if they’re “pissed,” or “irritated,” or “frustrated.”
If they have those words in their mind, then that’s great. Otherwise, this feeling can be simplified to just “angry” or “mad” which work just as well. The important thing is that people have language, or a visual, to explain what they’re going through.
Labeling Emotions Helps with Regulation
Studies show that naming feelings can help people with emotional regulation. Simply putting a word to what you’re feeling can help release it.
For example, stating “I’m angry” might make you feel less angry. Researchers are still trying to understand how well, and why, this works (Torre & Lieberman, 2018).
Coping with Strong Emotions
I recommend people take their work with emotions a bit further. For example, if you become upset every time a certain topic comes up, it may be helpful to work through it. You may be able to resolve the emotion itself, or figure out a better way to cope with it.
New research is also showing that connecting the emotional centers of our mind with the intellectual areas can help with issues like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Try the following steps when it comes to dealing with feelings:
Recognize you’re having an emotion
Stay with it for a bit without trying to change it (a minute or so)
Name the emotion if you can
Recognize your physical sensations (shakiness, tension, relaxed?)
Ride it out if possible, or use a coping skill if needed
Emotional Coping Wheel
I find that most people identify a short list of emotions when it comes to processing and healing from trauma, anxiety, depression and other common issues. These include:
I’ve created my own version of the emotions wheels, which includes these core feelings, along with possible physical sensations experienced. This can help people make those connections from the survival/emotional areas of the brain to the more conscious, logical areas.
My wheel also has a section for coping skills, to help people deal with the emotions when necessary. (Although I recommend riding them out when possible to allow the brain to sort through it naturally.)
You can get a copy of my emotion wheel here, along with blank versions, posters, and worksheet versions.
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological science, 18(5), 421–428. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
Plutchik's Emotion Wheel. Machine Elf 1735, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plutchik's Dyads Infographic ChaoticBrain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plutchik, R. (1982). A psychoevolutionary theory of emotions. Social Science Information. 21: 529-553. https://doi.org/10.1177/053901882021004003