Butterflies in your stomach. A lump in your throat. Agonizing heartache. While they may sound like clichés, expressions like these hold a grain of truth: People very clearly “feel” strong emotions in various parts of their bodies – and these feelings can affect not only your mental well-being but your physical health.

To further explore how emotions affect people physically, we enlisted 2,000 people across the U.S. to pinpoint various spots on the fronts and backs of their bodies where they tend to feel very different emotions – from disgust to joy, anger to serenity. We then visualized the results in a series of heat maps. If you’ve ever felt gut-wrenching sadness, gone weak in the knees, or struggled the physical pangs of a broken heart, keep reading because as it turns out, you’re far from alone.

Various Feelings Across the Body

Emotional well-being is a vital component of mental health. Your feelings affect how you think, act, and relate to people – and as they chart a course from your brain to the rest of your body, their effects become physical. As you can see from the flipbook above, strong feelings can trigger reactions from head to toe. Along with causing sensations in the heat of the moment, intense or negative emotions can have more lasting effects, such as fatigue, high blood pressure, and heart palpitations.

Emotional pain and physical pain are closely linked – they even utilize the same portion of the brain. Negative emotions can unleash a flood of hormones that prompt physiological reactions: a rapidly pounding heart, shallow breathing, tensed muscles, and so on. Positive emotions can trigger a comforting warmth, pleasant tingling, and even butterflies in the stomach.

As you can see from the body maps that visualize our survey results, various emotions affect different body parts – the head, chest, arms, legs, and even feet. Among every emotion, anxiety prompts the most dramatic sensations in the legs. Picture it: You have an intense terrible feeling of foreboding, and suddenly your legs feel like jelly. That’s because when your body experiences a surge of adrenaline, such as that which can happen during severe anxiety or fear, it directs blood to the important parts such as your brain and your heart – leaving you, quite literally, weak in the knees. Additionally, more chronic or general anxiety can manifest as prolonged, frequent muscle tension, which can affect some of the largest muscles in the body: those in and near the legs. Anxiety is also heavily located in the torso, and even youth who experience anxiety related to school have reported experiencing more frequent stomachaches and backaches.

Have you ever had a broken heart? It’s not just an expression. Along with the emotional baggage it carries, extreme sadness can cause distinctive physical sensations in the chest: tight muscles, a pounding heart, rapid breathing, and even a churning stomach. As you can see on the body map, survey respondents pinpointed the chest as a major spot for the manifestation of sadness. Severe sadness and stress, such as grief, can even lead to an elevated risk of heart attack.  And aside from these acute symptoms, depression is known to exacerbate overall chronic pain. In turn, pain can make depression worse, sometimes leading to a persistent cycle of both emotional and physical debilitation. Depression is also associated with coronary artery disease and cardiovascular risk factors as well. At times, difficult emotions like anxiety and sadness can seem overwhelming. If you’d like tips for navigating life’s toughest situations, visit MentalHelp.net.

The Most Dramatic Reactions


Among all the body maps we studied, a few stood out because of where feelings were concentrated – whether particularly in the arms, virtually absent in the legs, or interspersed throughout the entire body.

According to survey respondents, several emotions prompt physical feelings in the arms – but none so strongly as aggressiveness. Why? Being overcome with hostility can actually prompt people to unconsciously ready themselves for a fight. Additionally, if you’ve ever heard the term “hothead,” it may not come as a shock that aggressiveness manifests in the head – as is often evidenced by the red face of an extremely angry person.

Whether from smelling moldy leftovers or watching a gory movie, disgust can cause a visceral reaction. Biologically, the emotion – which is linked to the digestive system – originated as a defense mechanism: It prevented early humans from eating spoiled or poisonous food and becoming ill. On our body map, disgust manifests in the face and gut. If you smell something terrible, immediately your nose wrinkles and your mouth purses (you might even gag!), and your stomach roils with nausea. Disgust can also influence the actions of various facial muscles; this explains how this emotion was strongly localized to the head in our survey. (http://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1501&context=oa_dissertations)

Love causes a release of hormones that heighten the senses and prompt the desire to bond – and the physical effects can be dramatic. Along with warmth or tingling, love can cause sweaty palms, a pounding heart, flushed cheeks, and even dilating pupils. One interesting fact: Though it’s been said that love affects people right down to their toes, our respondents didn’t agree. In fact, among every emotion we studied, love is the least associated with sensations in the legs. The experience of romantic love, however, does extend to the gastrointestinal tract, and it may even lead to a decline in sensations of hunger. (http://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1036&context=ijurca)

Much like anxiety, fear or panic floods virtually the entire body with physical sensations. This is a deeply rooted biological defensive response: When the brain detects any type of danger, it kicks the body into fight-or-flight mode. As our respondents noted, intense fear can cause a plethora of immediate physical sensations: weak and shaky legs, a pounding heart, and shallow breathing. In extreme cases, severe fear related to panic disorders can cause a heightened awareness and attention to even innocuous bodily sensations and a tendency to perceive these sensations as signs of poor health. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20069925)

Strong negative feelings like these can cause real physical distress, such as tense muscles that lead to headaches and upset stomachs. If you find yourself overcome with discomfort prompted by strong emotions, it’s a good idea to take a breather. Find a quiet spot, sit down in a chair or on a sofa that supports your arms and legs, and concentrate on breathing deeply and relaxing your muscles. For more tips on dealing with strong emotions, visit MentalHelp.net to find resources and reach out to trained professionals that can help you manage sometimes-overwhelming emotions.

Conflicting Emotions Go Head to Head

LOVE: a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person

LUST: a strong feeling of sexual desire

Are you truly in love – or is it a passing fancy that’s purely physical? People have discussed the difference between lust and love since the beginning of time. Lust, generally synonymous with strong and immediate sexual desire, is a primal physical attraction spurred by the desire to procreate, while love is profound and all-encompassing. Though the body maps are somewhat similar, intriguing differences abound: Love is focused higher in the chest, whereas lust manifests more in the pit of the stomach. Given the ability of romantic love to inhibit physical hunger, it makes sense that lust is more focused on the stomach than love. Lust is felt down to the toes, while love is centered more in the arms – possibly indicating a desire to hug. But how do more negative feelings stack up with each other?

Annoyance vs. Anger

ANNOYANCE: slight anger

ANGER: a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong

You’re angry – or are you just annoyed? There may be a fine line between the two emotions, but our respondents reported a difference. The emotions possess similarities, with a focus on the head and chest, but annoyance has a wider reach: It radiates heavily down the legs and into the feet – perhaps suggesting impatient or fidgety toe-tapping – and settles more heavily in the stomach. Like many of the most dramatic emotions, anger appears heavily focused within the chest. However, sometimes anger can be more serious. Anger involves an intense physical stress reaction – so powerful that, if experienced frequently, it can lead to a headache, high blood pressure, and even long-term heart disease. (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/anger-how-it-affects-people) (http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/how-anger-hurts-your-heart)   If you suspect you or someone you know may have an anger management issue, visit MentalHelp.com to learn more.

Next, we compared two emotions that are more enjoyable to experience.

Anticipation vs. Joy

ANTICIPATION: a feeling of excitement about something that is going to happen

JOY: a feeling of great happiness

Anticipation and joy are both positive emotions – however, they manifest quite differently. More so than virtually any other emotion, anticipation floods throughout much of the body, including the head, stomach, legs, and chest. Joy, on the other hand, is predominantly focused within the chest like other strong emotions. One theory: The excitement that is inevitably intermingled with anticipation can cause weak and shaky legs, butterflies in the stomach, and even goose bumps.

The Mind-Body Connection

Despite decades of research, people still haven’t entirely demystified the complex connection between emotional and physical sensations. However, there’s no denying the strong and varied visceral reactions that many people have when they experience intense emotions – from the racing heart and sweaty hands during a job interview to the flutter of joy in the stomach after getting wonderful news.

Many of the emotions we examined are positive in nature, bringing with them numerous benefits that go beyond a lightness in the chest or pleasant butterflies in the stomach. For instance, studies have shown that happiness is linked to better health – specifically, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and normal body weight. Negative emotions such as stress, on the other hand, can increase the risk of certain physical issues, such as headaches, ulcers, and even chronic diseases. The next time you experience certain emotions, take a moment to consider how they manifest in your body – then take a deep breath, and ride the wave of feelings, and keep moving forward.

While certain emotions may be negative, it’s important to remember that good mental health does not mean the absence of pain, stress, or other emotions. Rather than suppressing and avoiding negative emotions, it’s much healthier to allow, tolerate, and even embrace the feelings that are all part of life’s sometimes-difficult journey. At MentalHelp.net, we can provide resources to help you understand strong emotions in your day-to-day life and deal with them in a healthy way. We also offer referrals to professional treatment designed to meet your own needs as you face life’s ups and downs. Visit or call MentalHelp.net today at 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? and find the assistance you deserve for the challenges in your life.


We asked 2,000 people to click on the body parts where they felt various emotions to explore how each one affected them differently.


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