Burp, Cough, Yawn: Surprising Clues to Your Hidden Emotions

Woman yawns and covers mouth outside.While it’s stereotypical to be asked about one’s feelings in therapy, a common counter to that question is, “I don’t know!” or, “I’m not feeling anything right now.”

Part of my job, then, is often to alert people to the possibility they are having a feeling and they may be getting in its way.

Perhaps the most important part of therapy is asking yourself the feelings question when you’re outside of the counseling room. As it turns out, there are some surprising signals that you may be having a feeling. Let’s look at a few possible tells.

Beyond the Story

Feelings have less logic than thoughts. Many people who seek therapeutic support have thought their way backward and forward about their issue, yet they may be missing the emotional aspect.

Stories are compelling. When a person in therapy is good storyteller, it can be enthralling. Of course, they are probably enthralling to others; they don’t need to pay me to be one more member of their audience. This leaves me with the somewhat challenging job of interjecting.

“Okay, but what are you feeling?” I ask.

Sometimes, there are physical signs of something being experienced internally.

Physical Clues to Feelings

No, I don’t think there is a deeper emotional meaning in everything.

Sometimes a cough is just a cough. But occasionally, if I’m sensing someone is clouding their emotions with some avoidant behavior, I take a chance and ask a strange (if not impertinent) question about what else is happening for them. (My hope is that the person coming to me for support will start doing this on their own, outside of therapy.)

A few examples that might be worded more carefully in the moment:

Sure, some people laugh. Some get angry. But once they sit with these questions, a good 75% of the time we discover something we weren’t talking about that we can now bring into the room.

  • Burping: What’s coming up for you? Figuratively, of course.
  • Drinking water/coffee/tea: What would happen if you didn’t take that sip right now? What might you be swallowing?
  • Going to the bathroom during a session: Is it possible you’re pissed at me?
  • Yawns or expressions of fatigue: What feelings are being put to sleep?

Sure, some people laugh. Some get angry. But once they sit with these questions, a good 75% of the time we discover something we weren’t talking about that we can now bring into the room.

I’ve been on the other end. Many times. All of this comes from years of my own therapist asking me these sometimes laughable, sometimes absurd, but often accurate and helpful questions.

Sometimes I just need to pee, but I know how much I’ve worked on my anger, so it doesn’t hurt to take a few minutes to explore if I’m holding back something. Maybe it’s mild irritation that my therapist isn’t “getting me” today. Maybe it’s full-on rage at something I’ve been stuffing.

These are just a few possible cues. You know yourself. What physical tics may be an indication of a feeling for you?

Now What?

The feedback I get after expressing this stuff to a person in therapy is usually, “Okay, now what?”

Well, now you get to let the feeling be. Now you get to come out of your story. Now you get to park your thoughts and see what might be driving. You get to examine what might be getting in the way of connecting to your partner. You get to consider what might be stopping you from following through on tasks for a boss you don’t like.

When you can acknowledge your feeling, you don’t have to spend energy squelching it and hiding it from others.

Hey, you’re one of the lucky ones. You’re in therapy. You can express that feeling without judgment and without it taking control of you.

Who knew a seemingly ill-timed burp could hold so much?

(Excuse me.)

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jennifer

    May 23rd, 2018 at 6:47 PM

    This is interesting! Once I had a coughing fit at the end of a body awareness exercise, and the thought came up “what am I trying to get out of my body?”. It feels validating to hear that there may have been something to it.

  • Justin Lioi

    June 7th, 2018 at 10:20 AM

    Absolutely, Jennifer–thanks for writing!

  • Debbie

    May 24th, 2018 at 9:29 AM

    My therapist always asks me where in my body I’m feeling the emotion. Oftentimes it’s in my stomach. The next question is always, “what’s the emotion?” It gets at the root of the problem all the time. Scared, angry, hopeless, sad.

  • Justin Lioi

    June 7th, 2018 at 10:21 AM

    Amazing how it’s all connected, right?

  • Mazza

    May 25th, 2018 at 3:22 AM

    In a session, I once told the therapist something that felt hard to say, about her. At the end of the session I had a coughing fit and she said “It feels better to get that off your chest”….Exactly! I believe these things.

  • Justin Lioi

    June 7th, 2018 at 10:22 AM


  • BB

    May 31st, 2018 at 11:01 AM

    What about farts? Surely they might mean something too :)

  • Justin Lioi

    June 7th, 2018 at 10:23 AM

    Most likely!

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.