How to Understand Urges & Actions Associated with Emotions

Emotions are intricate complex processes that are much more than “just feelings.”  When our emotions become activated or triggered by something in the internal or external environment, the whole body gets in on the action by responding in particular ways.  A big part of learning how to gain a sense of knowledge and mastery over our emotional states is through becoming more aware of the physical sensations and urges associated with our emotions.

Have you ever felt the urge to speak up in class or in a meeting, only to have this urge immediately followed by a tightening in your throat or your heart beginning to pound?  It is as if your body is preparing you for what you are about to do.  Rather than fighting your physical reactions or urges associated with emotions, what would it be like to practice increasing mindful awareness of what is going on?

I find it helpful to recognize these bodily responses and urges associated with emotions as indicators of what emotion I am feeling, as well as indications of the significance of the emotion.  The foundation of this practice involves consciously increasing awareness of the interactive effects between physical sensations, urges, and emotions.

According to the DBT workbook Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life (Spradlin, 2003), emotions are not actually actions, rather they are preparing us for actions.  While it may seem that the emotional experience of anger or joy is so intensely experiential that the emotion itself is like an action, our emotions are really just getting us “ready” to take action.  Try thinking of emotions as useful indicators that are trying to tell you something.

What is the emotional experience of anxiety when you are walking down a dark alley all alone trying to tell you?  Could it be that the unpleasant emotional experience of anxiety is a useful tool that is reminding you to be alert to your surroundings and on guard?  Emotions don’t have to be a dreaded enemy – they are on our side.  Use them to your advantage.

Try identifying some urges and actions that you experience when you feel:

What comes up for you as you recall times in your life when you typically experience these emotions?  What actions or urges do you find yourself having when you experience these emotions?  Try noticing any patterns.  A key component to developing self-awareness and ultimately beginning the process of healthy change involves noticing our own personal themes within our life narratives.  How do you want to respond to these emotions differently in the future?

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Spradlin, S.E. (2003). Don’t let your emotions run your life: how dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: brett dennen:don’t forget by visualpanic / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Elise on April 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    So interesting…I never thought about emotions as preparing you for something but they really are useful indicators if responded to properly. Takes a lot of practice 🙂 Thanks for the great advice ;)I love the website!

    • Laura on April 25, 2011 at 9:30 am

      Elise – I’m glad you found this post interesting! It definitely takes practice to start looking at emotions as useful indicators. Sometimes it helps to just periodically stop and ask ourselves what a particular emotion might be trying to tell us. I think that for many of us, this is a life-long process. Thanks for your comment and for visiting my blog!

      • mark holland on November 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

        The biggest thing I’ve found in DBT is that I am aware of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I also know that I don’t have to do, feel, or think whatever it is that I used to think I had to. I can recognize what is going on and just let it go instead of being consumed by it or being driven by it into a frenetic pace.

  2. AURELIA CRISTIEAN on September 9, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    My dear,you are so right..emotions have no power over us ,unless we give in to them.I didn”t even know ,how much help,it”s,it”s all I need…,sharing your learning experience, you have my loving support! Thank you, for dealing with me! .I”m trying every day to correct my writting..but I still have my negative beliefs to overcame.All the best!

    • Laura on September 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Aurelia – I’m glad to hear that you found this post about understanding urges and actions associated with emotions to be helpful. It can be very difficult to remember “in the heat of the moment” that emotions do not have power over us unless we allow them to. It takes time, patience, and practice to overcome negative beliefs and patterns of thinking that cause us to struggle. Thank you for your comment and for visiting my site.

  3. Monique W. on September 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Wow ! I found this article to be interesting as well. Even though I read this article & understood everything it was talking about, I am one of the people that. . . in the “heat of the moment”, everything I know to be true as far as how I should handle a particular situation, goes right out the window. This usually happens when I am in a situation, where I or my children feel threatened or if I feel that someone is being JERKY, towards me. It is hard to explain, so I will try to give an example . . . If someone is being rude or mean to me on purpose, (if they don’t know me, then I don’t take it personal) I see this as, “it is my duty to put this person “in-check” and advocate for myself in a strong way, sometimes (ok, most times) coming off a bit aggressive. I feel like , I have to be like this, for the person to #1. know how it feels, and #2. Let them know that nothing gives them the right to behave in a way that may be upsetting or hurtful to the person they are dealing with.(I have learned that being kind & nice, sometimes gives mean people, the idea that I am a push-over & they can unload their CRAP on to me)
    I am sure that my behavior stems from my childhood, where I was exposed to abuse (sexual/physical/emotional/mental) at an early age (starting at age 4)and because I was so young & had no voice or right to say anything, once I found my voice, I have not been able to get control & find a balance, when put in those bad situations. Right now, that I am not in an actual bad situation, I am clam & know what & how I should behave/handle a situation, that I would deem as a threat or someone being rude/mean towards me. But as soon as I am put into that kind of situation, everything I know, goes right out the window. 🙁 I behave in a way, that leaves me feeling all mixed up inside. On one hand, I am proud of myself for not allowing someone to treat me badly, & on the other hand, I feel sad & ashamed, for my behavior, always thinking that there could have been a better way to handle it. Anyhow, I would love to hear your thoughts & feelings about this.
    I would also like you to know that I really feel good after I leave your site. Thank You for having it. 🙂
    Much continued success. Sincerely, ~Monique

    • Laura on September 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      Monique – I’m glad to hear that you found this article on understanding urges and actions associated with emotions to be interesting! It can be very difficult to remain mindful and aware of how we “know” we should handle particular situations when “in the heat of the moment.” It is completely understandable for much of your more rational thinking to go out the window when you or your children feel threatened. It is also understandable to feel this way when feeling like someone is directing hostility toward you.

      For many people, it is easy to imagine that we know what another person’s intentions are when they are being rude/mean. It is natural to feel defensive or guarded when feeling under attack. It is helpful to be especially tuned in to your physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings when in this type of situation. It sounds like you already have the self-awareness to recognize that this is a type of situation where you tend to feel triggered. That is such an important step to make that realization. The next step is to begin to gradually respond differently when those familiar emotions come up. This can be much easier said than done, of course, and takes practice.

      It is great that you feel the importance of advocating for yourself and standing up for yourself in these situations. It sounds like you have had some very tough experiences where you have had to learn the hard way not to let others “unload” on you, as you said. Childhood abuse can leave lasting scars and can be incredibly difficult to emotionally process. I hope that you have felt safe to work on some of those deeper issues in a therapeutic environment. It is wonderful that you have “found your voice” now, as an adult.

      It sounds like one of the next steps in your journey is to feel more emotionally balanced when in a situation that you deem as threatening in some way. It also sounds like you experience a lot of distress as a result of that feeling that you are left with of “feeling all mixed up inside.” Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can be a wonderful form of therapy to work on the issues of emotion regulation and interpersonal assertiveness/effectiveness. I hope that you find some good resources that are helpful to you with these issues.

      I am very glad to hear that you feel good after leaving this website. It means a great deal to know that these articles on issues that I care about are helpful to others. That is certainly the point of creating this site. Thank you for visiting my site and for your comment!

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