It might seem super simple, but the wheel of emotions can help a lot when you're spiraling in your feelings.

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emotions-wheel
Credit: Alex Sandoval

When it comes to mental health, most people tend to not have a particularly established vocabulary; it can seem impossible to describe exactly how you're feeling. Not only does the English language oftentimes not even have the right words, but it's also easy to categorize into large, nonspecific categories. You think, "I'm either good or bad, happy or sad." So how do you figure out what you're really feeling — and once you do, what do you do with that information? Enter: the wheel of emotions.

Clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D, executive director at i360 in Dallas, TX works primarily with men and adolescents — as such, he says he's quite familiar with using this tool for emotional labeling. "Men are pretty bad about having one emotion in their vocabulary: angry," he says. "I'm only half-joking."

Though this word-block tends to come up in men's therapy, diversifying your mental health vocabulary is important for everyone, regardless of your gender identity, says Gilliland. "The wheel of emotions is a useful tool for people to better identify their feelings, rather than saying 'I just don't feel good,'" says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.

What Is the Wheel of Emotions?

The wheel — sometimes called "the emotion wheel," or "the wheel of emotions" — is a circular graphic divided into sections and subsections to help the user better identify and understand their emotional experience at any given time, under any circumstance.

And there's not just one wheel. The Geneva Emotion Wheel plots emotions in a wheel shape but on a grid of four quadrants that ranks them from pleasant to unpleasant and controllable to uncontrollable. Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (designed by psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980) features eight "basic" emotions at the center — joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust — with a spectrum of intensity, plus the relationships between the emotions. Then there's the Junto wheel, which has a wider array of emotions and is a bit easier to use: It names joy, love, surprise, sadness, anger, and fear in the center, and then further deconstructs those larger emotions into more specific emotions towards the outside of the wheel.

The main gist of this is that there's no "standardized" emotional wheel, and different therapists use different designs. Plus, you might glean a different perspective depending on which wheel you use. For instance, Plutchik's Wheel is actually a cone that also highlights the relationship between adjacent emotions; i.e. between "ecstasy" and "admiration" you'll find "love" (even though "love" itself isn't a category) and between "admiration" and "terror" you'll find "submission" (again, "submission" is not a category, just a combination of two adjacent categories). It's a little tough to gather without visual examples, so definitely take a look at these wheels. Just as there are different therapists for different people, there are different wheels — so find what works for you (and if you have a therapist, you can work with them to choose one, too).

Using these wheels might help you make sense of your feelings — and this can be a great starting point for making emotional progress, says Dr. Dimitriu. "It adds a level of detail beyond just 'good or bad,' and with improved insight, people may be better able to tell what is bothering them." (Related: 8 Emotions You Didn't Know You Had)

Why You Might Use a Wheel of Emotions

Feeling blocked? Unable to pinpoint what you're feeling, where that feeling is coming from, and why? Want to feel more empowered, validated, and clear-minded? Need answers? You want the wheel (and also probably therapy, but more on that in a bit).

These charts might help you realize you have more emotional depth and nuance than you thought, and the result can be incredibly validating. "One of the reasons I really like these wheels — or sometimes lists — of emotions, is because humans are capable of all manners of finely tuned emotions, but sometimes you need something that helps you put it into words," says Gilliland. "I can't tell you how often people are surprised — and really excited — when they see a word that really captures what they are feeling or going through."

The validation could be compounded by that elation you feel when something clicks (even if the elation is a result of finding out you're not just feeling "angry" but actually "powerless" or "jealous"). "It's like you finally have an answer to the question you've been asking, and you get some confidence from that, even if there's still uncertainty," says Gilliland. "It's almost like you get some peace from finally knowing what you're feeling," and from there, you can get to work: "The 'why' comes a little easier" after that. (Related: Why You Might Cry When You Run)

These factors in and of themselves can be incredibly healing, according to Gilliland. "Your emotions also impact your thoughts, which is one of the reasons it's important to be accurate," he says. "The emotion can unlock thoughts that help you have a broader understanding and perspective — at times, it's like knowing the right emotion unlocks a back-log of insight."

How to Use a Wheel of Emotions

1. Pick a category.

Start by identifying the general category, and then drilling down. "When you can be more accurate with how you feel or think, the solutions can sometimes be right in front of you," says Gilliland. "I'll sometimes start with a broad category: 'Okay, so do you feel happy or sad? Let's start there.'" Once you move off of "anger," you have to start thinking — and making a list of emotions is always better than limiting yourself to one broad emotion like anger, he says.

2. Or, look at the whole chart.

"If you feel like you just haven't been yourself lately (and honestly, who hasn't felt that way the past six months?), then take a look at a longer list of emotions and see if there's one that more accurately captures how you've felt," suggests Gilliland.

3. Expand your list.

Do you tend to always use one or two specific words when identifying your emotions? Time to expand that mental health vernacular! "If you have a 'default' emotion (i.e., you tend to use the same one all the time), then you need to add some words to your language," says Gilliland. "It helps you, and it will help family and friends when you talk with them." For example, before a date, are you actually feeling anxious, or is it more like insecure? After a friend bails on you, are you simply angry, or more betrayed?

4. Don't just look at the negatives.

Gilliland urges you to not exclusively look for emotions that are "heavy" or "down."

"Look for ones that help you appreciate life; things like joy, gratitude, pride, confidence, or creativity," he says. "Just reading through the list can often remind you of the full range of emotions, not just the negative ones. It's needed at times like this." (Ex: Maybe dancing to that Lizzo song naked didn't just make you feel good or happy, but actually made you feel ~confident and free~.)

Once You've Identified Your Feelings...

So, now what? For starters, don't pack it all away. "It's important to understand which feelings you experience and why, but it's also important to sit with feelings and not run from them or get distracted," says Dr. Dimitriu. "Labelling feelings (from the wheel, for example), journaling about them (to explore them in more detail), and understanding what made things better or worse are all helpful."

"Your emotions are connected to your thoughts and behaviors in a way that researchers continue to study," says Gilliland. "One thing we do know: they are related in powerful ways." For example, you tend to remember emotional events more clearly because emotions can enhance your memory. So "it's worth your time to be as specific as you can," he says.

Both experts suggest journaling and making a list to dig into your feelings. "Once you can identify your feelings, it may be helpful to understand two things: first, what caused them, and second, what made them better," says Dr. Dimitriu. (Related: How Expressing Your Emotions Makes You Healthier)

Keep in mind, you'll learn these things in therapy, too. "Good therapy helps people identify their feelings and reactions," said Dr. Dimitriu, noting that, as a psychiatrist, the concept of emotional identification is infused into his practice. "The wheel of emotions is a good start, but not a replacement for therapy."