The Importance of Emotional Awareness in PTSD

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Emotional awareness is essentially being able to identify the emotions you're experiencing at any given time. To manage your emotions effectively, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you first need to be as sure as possible of what you're feeling.

PTSD and Emotional Awareness

Not knowing for sure what emotions you're feeling makes it harder to control them. That's why it's important to learn ways to increase your emotional awareness. You can start by learning to identify where you and others are on the emotional awareness ladder or spectrum.

If you're like many people with PTSD, you may often feel intense and uncomfortable emotions that are hard to identify and seem out of control and unpredictable. 

Levels of Emotional Awareness

Your awareness of any given emotion is said to fall on a spectrum ranging from no awareness to complete awareness. Drs. Lane and Schwartz theorized that this spectrum falls into six separate levels of increasing emotional awareness, including:

  1. No emotional awareness: You have no idea what you're feeling or that an emotion is even present. For example, you may say, "I feel like a loser." However, this is an evaluation or judgment, not an emotional state.
  2. Awareness of bodily sensations: You have some awareness of feelings, but they may only be bodily sensations, such as increased heart rate or muscle tension.
  3. Awareness of behaviors: You may only be aware of how you would like to act as a result of feeling an emotion. For example, you may say, "I think I feel like leaving this situation as fast as possible," likely signaling fear or anxiety, or "I feel as though I could yell at him," signaling anger.
  4. Awareness that an emotional state is present: You're aware that an emotion is present; however, you may have a hard time figuring out exactly what emotion it is. For instance, you may have enough awareness to know that you feel bad or overwhelmed, but nothing more specific than that. This is sometimes termed an undifferentiated emotional state.
  5. Differentiated emotional awareness: We are now getting to the top levels of emotional awareness. At this level, you're aware of specific emotions that are present. You're able to identify the emotion you're feeling, such as sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, happiness, joy, or excitement, at any given point in time.
  6. Blended emotional awareness: This is the top level of emotional awareness. You're aware of a number of emotions that are present at the same time, including emotions that may seem in opposition to one another, such as sadness and happiness. For example, a mother seeing her child go off to school for the first time may be very happy her child has reached this milestone but also sad to see her child growing up so fast.

From this theory, the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS) was developed and is used extensively for evaluation and researching emotional awareness in and out of the clinic. The five levels of the LEAS are physical sensations, action tendencies, single emotions, blends of emotions, and blends of emotions.

Monitor Your Emotions

Once you feel as though you have a good understanding of the levels of emotions, get in the habit of monitoring your emotions—thinking about what you're feeling and taking time to identify it as you go through your day.

As with any skill, increasing your emotional awareness may take time and hard work. However, even if you can't always identify everything you're feeling, you can use the information you have to try to figure it out.

For example, if you know that your heart is racing, you're having thoughts that something bad might happen, and you know that anxiety or fear are common emotions that people have in those situations, you can be fairly sure you're feeling anxiety or fear.

Once you've answered the question, "What is emotional awareness?" for yourself and get in the habit of monitoring your emotions, you'll be well along in your efforts to move up the emotional awareness ladder. Keep in mind, too, that good emotional awareness can provide a solid foundation for learning other important ways to manage your PTSD.

Get Advice From the The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can learn to tolerate uncomfortable emotions.

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