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What is the Difference Between Sensory Language and Feeling Language?

Julie Kurtz, MS

September 10, 2021

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Question

What is the difference between sensory language and feeling language?

Answer

There's a difference between sensations and feelings. When sensations or feelings are triggered by an event, there's a release or charge of energy that happens within our body. In fact, when we have emotional buttons pushed, we release toxic stress chemicals to the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, which sends stress chemicals through our body. This tells us we need to fight, flight, and freeze and also sends messages that we're not safe and we're in danger.

One of the ways that our body expresses this charging event is through sensations in our body. These are physiological happenings in the body due to the energy charge the body experiences or feels. Examples include my head hurts, I have a pit in my stomach, my palms are sweaty, or I'm shaky. Your body is really communicating the intensity of that experience.

Feelings are the words that describe how you feel. As I said, they can be mad, angry, frustrated, or sad, but they can also be small, medium, or large. They are also triggered by an experience.

The figure below is from our book, Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators. It shows and explains sensory language versus feeling language.

Sensory language is in the left column and feeling language is in the right column. It is helpful to teach kids sensory language as well as feeling language so they can recognize the sensory symptoms in their body as a clue that they might have a button pushed. Examples of sensory language include:

  • Does it feel like butterflies are in your chest?
  • Does it feel like bumblebees are buzzing in your stomach?
  • Do you feel jumpy like a frog?
  • Do you feel slow like a turtle?

It's tuning them into the body sensations and feeling language such as scared, anxious, nervous, panicked, stressed. Those are language words that identify emotions. We want to teach children both.

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Preventing Challenging Behaviors, in partnership with Region 9 Head Start Associationpresented by Julie Kurtz, MS.


julie kurtz

Julie Kurtz, MS

Julie Kurtz is an author, national speaker, and expert consulting and training on trauma and resilience. She promotes the concept of optimal brain integration to maximize the human growth potential. Julie is the Founder and CEO for the Center for Optimal Brain Integration.

She is a co-author of: 

  • Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators: Relationship-Based Approaches that Support Healing and Build Resilience in Young Children.
  • Culturally Responsive Self-Care Practices for Early Childhood Educators (Spring 2020).

Julie Kurtz is the creator of the phone/tablet Application (APP) Trigger Stop: Sensory and Emotional Check-in designed specifically for children ages 3-8 years to promote sensory and emotional literacy and to support self-regulation.

In 2011, she was named as one of the most 100 Influential Woman of Silicon Valley, CA by the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal.


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