The Importance of Understanding Your PTSD Emotions

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If you have PTSD, you may experience very strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, or shame, to name only a few. When you feel several of these PTSD emotions in quick succession, it can be very hard to know what you're feeling at any given moment.

If it often happens that you don't know what you're feeling, you may be headed for problems such as:

  • Being unable to manage your emotions and stay in control
  • Choosing unhealthy coping skills, such as avoidance or self-medication with illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Feeling out of control and anxious about what emotions are coming up next

In extremely upsetting situations, some people may use dissociation ("blanking out," or feeling that your emotions are disconnected from you) to distance themselves from all aspects of an emotion.

Understanding Your Feelings

When you know exactly what you're feeling, you have the right information to figure out how to make yourself feel better. You can choose the way to cope with your PTSD emotions that are most likely to be effective.

But, you may wonder, aren't treatment methods effective? Yes, but not every healthy coping strategy works the same for every emotional experience. For example, expressive writing might work better for sadness than for anger, whereas taking a "time-out" would probably be more effective for escalating feelings of hostility.

How can you identify exactly what you're feeling? First, you need to know the different forms emotions can take.

Aspects of an Emotion

Every emotion has three parts:

  • Behavior: The action you feel like taking when you're feeling an emotion
  • Sensations: The physical changes in your body (for example, increased heart rate, or nausea) when you're feeling an emotion
  • Thoughts: Ideas or images that pop into your head when you're feeling an emotion

If you're like most people, with or without PTSD, you probably haven't been aware of the three parts of your emotions or the different ways those parts may affect how you feel.

For example, sometimes one part, such as uncomfortable thoughts, can "come on" so strongly that it's difficult to get in touch with the others. If you were to experience this, you might simply try to push away or suppress your uncomfortable thoughts, which, of course, would keep you from identifying them and choosing an appropriate coping strategy that would make you feel better.

Identifying Your Emotions

Listed below are some forms that the three parts of commonly-felt PTSD emotions may take.


  • Behaviors: Getting away from a situation, "freezing," crying
  • Sensations: Racing heart, "tunnel vision," shortness of breath
  • Thoughts: "I'm in danger. Something terrible is going to happen."


  • Behaviors: Isolating yourself, crying
  • Sensations: Low energy, slower heart rate, nausea
  • Thoughts: "My situation is never going to change. I'm all alone in this."


  • Behaviors: Yelling, picking a fight, slamming doors
  • Sensations: Racing heart, muscle tension, jaw clenching
  • Thoughts: "Life is unfair. Everyone's out to get me."

Next time you experience an emotion, try to identify all three parts of it. (If you can't, knowing even one or two can be helpful.) Then match them up against this list to see if you're feeling one of these three common PTSD emotions. If you don't get a match, use the three parts you've identified to further investigate what you're feeling.

Coping Strategies to Match Your Emotion

Once you've identified at least one or two thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors connected to an emotion you're feeling, you can start thinking about the type of coping strategy that might be best for managing it.

For example, if you're experiencing an emotion that causes increased heart rate and muscle tension, you may want to try a coping strategy to bring those physical sensations down, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.

Now that you've learned how to identify your PTSD emotions, hopefully you're feeling better about managing them. Fortunately you can choose from a number of healthy coping strategies.

1 Source
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  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Trauma Reminders: Triggers.

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