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Understanding my feelings – for 11-18 year olds

A guide for young people that explains how you can recognise and understand difficult feelings.

Mae'r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg. This link will take you to a Welsh translation of this page.

Are emotions and feelings the same thing?

You might hear people using the words ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’. They mean slightly different things, and we try to understand them as:

  • Emotions – how we feel about something and how our body reacts. For example, if we experience fear, we might feel our heart beating faster or notice our hands shaking.
  • Feelings – how we experience our emotions and give meaning to them. They are different for everyone. For example, you might associate your hands shaking with feeling anxious.

In this guide, we use the word feelings to talk about your experiences and how they affect you.

Sometimes our feelings can be upsetting, scary or confusing – especially if we're not sure why we feel the way we do.

Whatever you're feeling right now, we're here to help.

Don't run or hide from emotions: acknowledge and accept them. The more often you do this, the more comfortable you will feel with dealing with them.

What's happening to me?

Feelings can be hard to make sense of. You might be having new feelings you don't understand, like:

  • Just not feeling yourself
  • Feeling something isn't right
  • Finding it hard to enjoy things you normally would, like seeing friends or partners, or doing your favourite hobby
  • Feeling angry or sad
  • Feeling like you want to be alone
  • Having strange thoughts you don't understand
  • Feeling energetic or hyper
  • Struggling to concentrate or focus
  • Feeling out of control

If you're worried about anything you're feeling or experiencing, it might help to talk to someone you trust. They can talk things through with you, or help you to find support.

Sometimes admitting that something might be wrong is the hardest part of recognising your feelings.

How can I recognise what I'm feeling?

Recognising your feelings is the first step towards understanding them and learning how to cope with them.

It might feel difficult at first, but with time and practice, it will get easier.

Here are our top tips:

  • Download and fill in our Emotion Wheels resource. This can help you to name feelings that are hard to understand or describe. Download our Emotion Wheels PDF – this opens in a new window.
  • Set aside time to check in with how you're feeling. You could use a notebook, journal or your phone to write down your feelings.
  • Practise paying attention to your feelings in the moment. For example, how do you feel when doing something you enjoy? Or how do you feel when doing something you find difficult or scary?
  • Express your feelings creatively. You could draw, paint or try arts and crafts.
  • Talk to yourself like you would to a good friend. You could ask yourself: ‘Is this a new feeling?’ or ‘What does this feel similar to?’

Although it's important to pay attention to your feelings and try to recognise them, you don't need to do it all the time. Making time to relax and clear your mind is just as important for your wellbeing. Take as many breaks as you need.

It can be really scary to stop and think about how you're feeling, especially when those feelings are negative. I spent a long time convincing myself that there was nothing wrong, even though there clearly was. Looking back, I regret not exploring my feelings sooner.

three white flowers

Remember: how we experience our feelings is unique to each of us.

Your feelings and reactions might be different to others, even towards the same thing, and that's okay. You might also feel lots of different things at once, and that's okay too.

Why am I feeling this way?

Lots of things can affect the way you feel, like:

  • Problems at home, school, or in your relationships and friendships
  • Losing someone important to you
  • Confusion about who you are, your sexuality or beliefs
  • Big events or changes in your life
  • Pressure from yourself or others
  • Feeling lonely or like nobody understands you
  • Feeling unwell
  • Being bullied
  • Being abused
  • Worrying about what's happening in the world or on the news
  • Worrying about things you see on social media
  • Experiencing something traumatic or frightening

Sometimes there might not be a reason for what you're feeling, and that's okay. You're not alone and you still deserve help

Understanding your feelings can feel more confusing when you're questioning your sexuality and gender identity. For LGBTQIA+ support, you can visit Stonewall, Mermaids and The Proud Trust.

No one can tell you, ‘Oh, you should have been through this by now’. Or ‘Oh, I'm here for again, all the support, so why are you still feeling this way’. Healing comes from within yourself – Faith, 12

How are my feelings and mental health linked? 

Understanding the link between your feelings and mental health can be confusing.

It can help to understand the difference between your thoughts, feelings and behaviours first:

  • Thoughts – what we think about ourselves and situations.
  • Feelings – part of our emotions and how we experience them.
  • Behaviours – the way we act and respond.

For example, if we're late for something, we may:

  • Think badly about ourselves. We might tell ourselves it's our fault and think of what we should have done differently.
  • Feel worried, stressed, guilty and irritable.
  • Behave in ways that are not helpful to us. We might rush, forget things or avoid going.

We might end up being later or not going at all, which starts the cycle again.

How can my feelings help me understand my mental health?

When a situation arises, our thoughts, feelings and behaviours connect to give us our experience. Being aware of all this can help us to judge how we're coping with our mental health.

We can use our thoughts, feelings and behaviours as signs that something needs to change, like if we feel sad or low for a long period of time. Or we can use them as encouragement to keep doing something that makes us feel good.

If you have trouble recognising and understanding your feelings, you may find it harder to cope with difficult feelings. You may not know how to react, or you may react in a way that can be harmful to yourself or someone else.

For more information, check out our tips on how to recognise and react to what you're feeling.

Are my feelings becoming a mental health problem?

As we get older, we go through lots of emotional and physical changes. We might experience a range of feelings from moment to moment, or day to day, and some can feel more difficult to manage.

If the way you're feeling, thinking or acting lasts for a long time, becomes difficult to cope with, or stops you from doing the things you enjoy, it might be a sign that you need more help. To find out more, see our page on understanding mental health.

Remember: whether your feelings are part of a mental health problem or not, you still deserve help if you're struggling to cope with them.

Low mood doesn't need to be caused by anything. It can just occur, and that is okay!

Asking for help with your feelings

It's normal to wonder whether you can handle things on your own, or even just feel like you don't know where to start. Whatever you're feeling, big or small, you don't need to cope on your own. You can open up to someone as soon as you feel ready. It might help to talk to someone you trust.

It doesn't matter how long you have been struggling with your feelings, it's always okay to ask for help.

The secret of my struggles was weighing down on me like a ton of bricks, and I decided I had to tell someone.

Why should I ask for help?

Asking for help can feel like a really hard step, but reaching out for support can help you to:

  • Find support to help with how you're feeling
  • Feel like you're not alone
  • Share how you feel with someone you trust
  • Understand your feelings better
  • Speak to a professional, like a doctor, counsellor or mental health expert
  • Stop things from getting worse
  • Start to feel better

It's important to try and learn to recognise and address these feelings, and get the right support at that time to cope with them.

What can I do right now to get help?

To get help with your feelings right now, you could:

  • Think about how you can share your feelings with someone you know. You could talk to a friend, partner or trusted adult. If you don't want to talk or aren't sure what you're feeling, you could try writing a letter or drawing a picture. For more ideas, see our page on opening up to someone you trust.
  • Call a helpline to have a confidential chat with an advisor. Sometimes it's easier to talk to someone you don't know. For ideas on who to contact, see our page of useful contacts.
  • Visit your doctor. For our guide on how to do this, see our page on talking to your doctor.
  • Explore options for support. For information about where to start, see our page on finding support.
  • Take some time to do something you enjoy or find relaxing. For tips on things you could try, see our page on looking after your wellbeing.

I find it difficult to understand my feelings which is what makes me feel out of control. However, with practice I've found techniques to help understand how I'm feeling, and I use positive coping mechanisms to help me.

This information was published in March 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

The quotes on this page are from young people we spoke to while making this information. They've given us their consent to use their quotes in our information. The words, experiences and opinions in the quotes are not related to the young people shown in any of the photographs we use.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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