Emotional Awareness Exercises for PTSD

sad woman writing in journal
Tracking your emotions and coping solutions works best if you write about your feelings when you experience them. Pixabay/luxstorm

If you have PTSD, emotional awareness exercises can make an important difference in your life. Why? Because working to increase your emotional awareness can help you manage your PTSD more effectively.

Coping Skills to Increase Emotional Awareness

You can use a number of coping skills to monitor your emotions and increase your emotional awareness, including:

You're probably using one or more of these. But not every coping skill is effective in every situation. So how do you know if the skills you're using are actually working in situations where you need to get strong emotions under control?

An effective way to find out if a coping skill is working for you is to monitor your emotions and track how you coped with them in situations where they were strong enough to threaten your self-control.

One of the emotional awareness exercises you can use appears below.

Create an Emotion-Monitoring Worksheet

Here's how:

  1. Find a sheet of paper or notebook if you'll be writing in your responses, or start a new document on your computer.
    1. Whatever you use, make sure it's something you can keep handy at all times. Why? Because the sooner you record the details of an emotional experience after it occurs, the more accurate your results will be.
  2. Draw columns 1 to 5 on the document.
    1. In drawing your columns, make sure they allow enough space to write about what happened and how you responded to it.
  3. At the top of column 1, write, "Describe a situation where I felt a strong emotion, such as anger or fear."
    1. List as many details of the situation as possible.
  4. At the top of column 2, write "My emotional awareness at the moment: What strong emotion did I feel in this situation?"
    1. Describe the strong emotion you felt. If you're not sure what it was, try to describe what it felt like in your body—for example, "My heart was beating very fast." (You may want to practice identifying your emotions before starting this step.)
  5. At the top of column 3, write "Rate the strength of my emotion from 0 to 100."
    1. Rate the strength of your emotion from 0 for "not strong at all" to 100 for "extremely strong."
  6. At the top of column 4, write "What was the main coping skill I used to manage the emotion?"
    1. Describe the coping skill you used—for example, expressive writing, seeking out social support, self-soothing, or deep breathing.
  7. At the top of column 5, write "My emotional awareness after using my coping skill: Rate the strength of my emotion from 0 to 100." Again, rate the strength of your emotion from 0 for "not strong at all" to 100 for "extremely strong."

Now, compare the strength of your emotion in column 5 to its strength in column 7. Did its strength change? If so, was it less strong, the same, or stronger? These results will show you how well your coping skill worked in this particular situation.

You can use this worksheet over and over to monitor your emotions and test how well your coping skills work when strong emotions arise.

Tips for Doing This Exercise

  • It's important to be as descriptive as possible. The more information you record, the more clues you'll have to figure out which coping skill works best for you in which emotionally stressful situation.
  • Don't be concerned if you notice that the strength of your emotion doesn't change right away. Give yourself time to see results. It can help to repeat the same exercise every time you face a similar emotional situation. After a number of "tries," you should start to feel more confident about your coping skills.
  • What if you find that a certain coping skill doesn't work for a certain emotion in a certain situation? Don't be discouraged: That's a learning experience, too. Try another coping skill the next time a similar emotional situation threatens to get out of control (be sure to record it on your worksheet). Over time, you'll come to know how to manage strong emotions in many different situations.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.