5 Cool Ways to Use an Emotions Wheel, Plus Examples & PDFs

Updated: Aug 28

A feelings wheel can help you recognize, validate, and cope with difficult emotions.

This emotions wheel, also called a feelings wheel or emotions chart, lists common emotions. It helps people recognize what they're feeling and cope with them better. The wheel also includes physical sensations to help with the mind-body connection.

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 or emotions chart, can help you or your clients better understand what you’re experiencing.


Below is a bit of background about where emotions wheels come from, followed by several cool ways you can use them.


Want to skip ahead and start using an emotions wheel now? Check out this resource with complete feelings wheels, blank wheels, coping skills, and more.


Article Highlights: Ways to Use an Emotions Wheel

1. Figure out what you're feeling

2. Validate your emotions

3. Express your emotions

4. Recognize your physical sensations

5. Ride out your feelings

6. Practice emotional coping

7. Learn cognitive defusion

Emotions Wheel + PDF & Worksheets

More mental health tools and worksheets


The Original Feelings Wheel

Plutchik’s Wheel

First, here's some quick background on where these wheels came from in the first place.


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:

  • Anger

  • Fear

  • Sadness

  • Disgust

  • Surprise

  • Anticipation

  • Trust

  • Joy

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.


Emotions wheels are great for figuring out your feelings and can help you deal with them. Here are some ways you can use them.

Download the emotions wheel, emotions chart, worksheets, blank feelings wheel, printables and more.

1. Figure out what you're 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 or a similar chart 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 also 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.


You can check out this more mainstreamed wheel that includes each feelings category along with common physical sensations that go with them.


2. Validate your emotions


This infographic shows Plutchik's emotional dyads, such as joy and trust combining to make love.
Plutchik’s dyads. Image Credit: "Chaotic Brain" Wikimedia Commons

Validation is an important part of feelings work. It's when you you recognize and acknowledge that a feeling or experience is real. It's just as important to validate yourself as it is to validate others.


A feelings wheel can help you do that. There's something about seeing a list of emotions that makes them seem more normal. They're so common that millions of other people use feelings lists!


By accepting that your feelings are normal, you can begin to deal with them more easily. For example, saying to yourself, "I shouldn't be disappointed about this," isn't necessarily the best place to start.


However, thinking, "It makes sense that I'm disappointed. A lot of people feel this way," is more helpful. Often just accepting that what you're feeling is normal can make you feel better.


3. Express your emotions

Another reason validation may work is because it's a way to verbalize what you're feeling.


Studies show that naming feelings can help people with emotional regulation. Simply putting a word to what you’re feeling can help release it (Torre & Lieberman, 2018).


Labeling a feeling (with the help of a feelings wheel) could prevent it from activating your amygdala, which begins to release stress hormones when it thinks you're in danger. That release can advance into a stronger responses, like a surge in adrenaline or increased blood pressure.


So stating “I’m angry” might make you feel less angry, soothing your feelings instead of making them stronger, and preventing problematic behavior that could follow (like throwing your phone across the room).


Researchers are still trying to understand how well, and why, this works.


4. Recognize your physical sensations

Feelings are as much a part of your body as they are your brain. If you ask yourself how you know you're having a feeling, such as hurt or anxious, it's often because you feel it in your body.


Many people experience butterflies in their stomach, shakiness, or crying when they're upset. That's how they, and others, recognize they're having a strong emotion.


Beginning to look for your physical sensations can help you identify feelings, especially when you typically have trouble doing so. Our emotions wheel and worksheets includes physical sensations and coping skills along with common feelings. You can view it here.


5. Ride out your feeling

While having difficult emotions can be disturbing, they don't have to be something to get rid of. In fact, sometimes riding them out can resolve them faster. This may be the case if you've ever noticed that you feel better temporarily but the feeling keeps coming back.


Riding out the emotion can help it naturally resolve in the body. It also gives you time to figure out your trigger, and what keeps making you feel this way. Sometimes recognizing that alone helps, and other times talking it out with someone else can hep release it.


6. Practice emotional coping

You can put the steps above together to practice dealing with particularly disturbing emotions.


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:

  1. Recognize you’re having an emotion

  2. Stay with it for a bit without trying to change it (a minute or so)

  3. Name the emotion if you can, using the emotions wheel for help

  4. Recognize your physical sensations (shakiness, tension, relaxed?)

  5. Ride it out if possible, or use a coping skill if needed

These feelings are outlined in some of our emotions wheel worksheets, along with the physical sensations that go with them. You can check them out here.


7. Learn cognitive defusion

An alternative way to deal with emotions is through what's called cognitive diffusion. This is when you separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings. To do this, imagine that you're a detective, examining what's going on in your brain.


Rather than thinking of yourself as your feelings, think of them as evens happening inside your brain. Notice when they occur, what triggers them, and what happens after you notice they're there.


Examine each feeling curiosity, while distancing yourself from it. This way, you can feel less controlled by your emotions. Think of the not as good or bad, but as neutral and normal experiences.


Emotional Coping Wheel

I find that most people identify a short list of emotions when it comes to processing. Here are the most common ones that come up during therapy for trauma, anxiety, depression and other common issues. These include:

  • Anger

  • Stress

  • Fear

  • Hurt

  • Sad

  • Shame

  • Disgust

  • Relief

  • Love

  • Excitement

  • Happiness

  • Calm

Keep in mind that sometimes, one feeling can be masking another. For example, someone might feel anxious on the surface, because deep down their feelings are really hurt.


Or, someone might be expressing anger, when really they're feeling deep disappointment. One uncomfortable feeling can become a defense mechanism against another that's even more painful.


Practice with Emotion Wheels

This infographic includes multiple versions of the emotion wheels, including sections for physical sensations and to make your own wheel.

Our version of the emotion wheel includes common core emotions, along with possible physical sensations that come with them. This can help people make those connections from the survival/emotional areas of the brain to the more conscious, logical areas.


Them wheel also has a section for coping skills, to help people deal with the emotions when necessary. (The steps above are also outlined on some of the worksheets and wheel posters.)


You can get a copy of the emotion wheel here, along with blank versions, posters, and worksheet versions.

This infographic has images of dozens of mental health coping tools, including therapy worksheets, therapy games, mental health activities, self-care tools, and more!

Sources


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