The STUF That Difficult Emotions Are Made Of

How to notice and respond to four elements of emotions.

Posted May 16, 2020

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

The Confusing Nature of Emotions

I was on the phone with a friend the other day and I could tell he wasn’t feeling great. When I asked if everything was okay, he said, “I don’t know. I was really looking forward to a trip this summer, but my wife wants to spend our travel fund on home improvement.” Trying hard not to sound like a stereotypical movie psychologist (“…and how does that make you feel?”), I asked how he felt about all of this. “I really need a vacation. Work has been intense this year,” he said. “So what did you do?” I asked. “I was just super annoyed the rest of the night,” he told me.

I felt bad for my friend. I was also a little confused about what he was dealing with. When I asked how he felt, he told me what he thought. When I asked what he did, he told me how he felt. When I reflected on this after our call, I was struck by how difficult it is to make sense of strong emotions.

When we feel guilty, distraught, angry, or panicked, it’s not always easy to figure out how we arrive at the conclusion that “that’s how I feel.” To identify a feeling, some people focus on what their body is doing. Others notice their beliefs, memories, images and other cognitive events. The rest of us get wrapped up in a strong desire to do something, like yell or walk briskly away from an unpleasant situation. Most people rely on some combination of these bits of information to subjectively decide they’re “scared” or “crushed.”

Our Options for Coping

You might wonder why it matters whether you clarify the different elements of emotions. After all, isn’t it enough just to know how you feel, so you can then do whatever is necessary to feel better? Maybe. The problem with this idea is that the tactics we use to feel better don’t always work. Good examples are the controlled breathing exercises we’ve all been told to use when we’re anxious. They work great—when they work. Similarly, punching a pillow might seem like a good way to get that anger out, until it doesn’t, and you become even more irritated from the wasted effort.

Emotion-driven coping strategies can also be time-consuming and impractical. If you’re at work, school, or traveling, it’s not realistic to drop everything and run a few miles, perform some deadlifts, or practice yoga asanas whenever you don’t like how you feel.

Although coping that targets the emotion itself has its place, it’s easy to invest too heavily in these strategies, to the point that we overlook the importance of thinking about problems in realistic and useful ways, taking action to address practical and meaningful challenges, and observing the inner experience without judgment before making a decision about how best to respond.

The optimal choices to make in emotionally charged situations aren’t always clear. If we regularly respond impulsively to how we feel, it’s only a matter of time before we avoid a personal responsibility, spend the day in bed, or have an outburst. Having the capacity to respond flexibly to difficult emotions when we notice them increases the likelihood that we’ll be more satisfied with our choices over time.

Making Sense of Difficult Emotions

I like to think that emotional experiences have four elements that are easily remembered with the acronym STUF: sensations, thoughts, urges, and feeling labels. When a strong feeling emerges, you can focus on what your body is doing, what’s going through your mind, your impulse to do something or not do something, and the labels you use to make sense of it all.

When you slow things down in emotionally charged situations and pay attention to your STUF, it gets easier to understand what you’re working with and how best to proceed. At times, what initially seems like a meaningful emotion turns out to be just a false alarm that’s better left alone. But even when your STUF suggests that your feeling should be taken seriously, it’s still helpful to use the available data to decide whether to change your perspective, solve a problem, or go easy on yourself for struggling with an uncomfortable emotion.

Four Elements of Emotional Experiences

You can use the following examples to help you explore the STUF that stands out when you’re going through a tough time emotionally. The more you practice noticing your STUF in emotionally charged situations, the easier it gets to choose from a range of coping responses that might be most useful in that moment or in the future.

  • S refers to sensations, the bodily reactions that we notice to identify a feeling. Rapid heart rate and breathing? Might be “anxiety.” The presence of pain, heaviness in the limbs, and headaches might signal “depression.” And forearm tension with clenched teeth can inform the judgment of “anger.”  
  • T refers to the thoughts we have about setbacks of the past, our own or others’ limitations, or something bad that might happen in the future. These thoughts tend to emerge when we’re sad, irritable, or anxious.
  • U refers to the urges we have to do something or not do something. The urge to stop trying and shut down can stand out when we’re sad and things seem hopeless. The urge to leave an uncomfortable social situation is noticeable when we’re anxious and concerned about others’ judgments. The urge to fire off an angry email might be apparent when a situation seems unfair. And the urge to use alcohol or drugs might be evident when we just don’t want to experience any kind of difficult emotion.
  • F refers to the feeling labels we assign to our collections of sensations, thoughts, and urges. When your heart is beating fast and it’s hard to take a complete breath, you might believe you’re “annoyed” or “anxious.” When you’re working out, this same internal arousal tells you you’re “energized.” And when you’re about to meet up with a friend you haven’t seen since college, your physical reaction might mean you’re “excited.” Taken together, your physical sensations, combined with different thoughts and behavioral urges, provide a lot of data to help you label your emotions.

An Exercise

If you struggle with difficult emotions, an exercise that can be helpful is to spend the next week paying attention to your STUF for just a few minutes, several times a day. Notice these elements when you’re feeling relaxed and also when you’re experiencing a strong emotion. Write down what you observe and highlight what stands out. See if you can identify any themes in the elements of STUF that make the feelings so difficult.

Consider what you’d like to do with your STUF when your feelings are intense. At times you might prioritize self-care strategies to boost your mood or reduce the intensity of the emotion, but you can also remind yourself to counter biased, destructive beliefs with more useful plans and predictions, commit to working through difficult emotions to take on important challenges, or allow authentic emotions to exist and respond to yourself the way you would to a friend—with greater acceptance, patience, and warmth.