What Are Emotions?
The term ’emotion’ is one that is both complex and very simple. On the lowest-level, emotions are how you physiologically and mentally respond to a stimulus. Someone tells a joke, you laugh. You suffer a loss, you cry.
Emotions are the building blocks of our experiences, and allow our body to manage the stress of each situation more easily. For example, there are many situations that are just plain overwhelming and laughing or crying can be a way to release some of the steam. Further, emotions serve to protect us by allowing us to feel fear.
Despite all this, emotions can still be kind of a pain in the butt. No one really likes to be snot-nosed and puffy-faced. Just keep in mind that without emotions, we would have a very flat experience. What is joy without knowing sadness? What is loss without love?
What’s worse is experiencing these emotions and not understanding what they are and how we process them.
Why Do We Experience Emotions?
As mentioned, emotions serve several purposes in the human experience.
Building Blocks: As the building blocks of the human experience, the average person experiences tens of emotions every day. While estimates vary, it is safe to say that there are fewer moments throughout the day that you DON’T experience emotions, than when you do. Even as infants we experience the rudimentary emotions – happy, sad, scared, angry. Many of these emotions are “fundamental” in that just about every culture in the world can identify them consistently.
The most critical emotional development we go through occurs in childhood. As a child, it is often difficult to identify emotions and properly labeling them. Failure to develop this skill can lead to a more difficult emotional experience into adulthood. Mis-identifying emotions can make it more difficult to identify what you are feeling and why, and thus to resolve or respond to the situation more effectively.
Finally, emotions do much to color our everyday experience. A life rich in emotions gives context, balance, and perspective to the situations you experience.
Bio-Feedback: Another main purpose to emotions is that they provide “bio-feedback.” Essentially, emotions tell us how our body and mind are feeling and direct the body in next actions, such as “fight or flight.”
Stress Dispersal: In a technical sense, the body is placed under continual stress the entire time you are awake. As we all know, life rarely allows you a day completely devoid of all stressful situations. When this stress occurs, emotions again help your body out by releasing hormones to give you a leg up on responding to the situation. Additionally, sometimes strong emotions can be a major stress-relief, such as when you rage, sob, or laugh.
Emotional Context: Emotional context is what makes our lives richer. The contrast between emotions adds depth and significance to what we feel, why we feel it, and when we feel it. Knowing unfettered joy is made more significant by devastating sadness. Fear is more poignant by moments of safety and contentment. Emotions all balance each other and add a rich layer of understanding to everyday life.
Survival Instinct: This doesn’t apply to all emotions; however, some emotions including fear, terror, unease, and anxiety, serve as a warning. These emotions again cue your “fight or flight” response to kick into gear so that you can respond to a potentially harmful or life-threatening position. As endorphins flood your system, non-vital systems shut down so that the body can create reserves in case of prolonged, immediate, and severe action.
What Do Emotions Feel Like?
This is one of the hardest things to learn about emotions. Not only is there an intellectual experience to how we experience emotions, but there are also many, many physical cues we are given to understand emotions as well.
Heart: The heart plays a role in just about every emotion we experience. As you experience an emotion, your heart rate may speed up, race, flutter, or in some cases, slow down. You may experience this as a pounding sensation, light-headedness, coldness, or a rapid fluttering experience.
Skin: A lot of the bio-feedback we get is from changes in our skin. You may start to sweat, shiver, become cold, or become clammy. In some cases, you may flush as blood races to your cheeks, or you may become very pale.
Mouth: When we are scared or nervous, sometimes we get a “cotton-mouth” feeling where the mouth becomes very dry. Your mouth might feel sticky and dry, and it may become hard to speak. Other experiences include a “lump” in your throat or excessive salivation.
Temperature: Depending on the emotion you feel, your temperature may change to accommodate changing needs from your system. As your heart races and your breathing increases your body temperature may go up. However, if the blood drains from your face, you are sad and heavy feeling, your temperature may go down.
Stomach: A lot of people “experience” emotions in their stomach. This can include feeling butterflies, a pit in your stomach, stomach aches or cramps, or nausea.
How Do Emotions Work?
In order to best understand emotions, it’s important to understand the “life-cycle” of an emotion. How does one start? How do you identify it? What happens then? Here are the steps of how we experience an emotion:
- Prompting event: An initial event occurs that prompts a response.
- Your interpretation of the event: This refers to how you view the event – positive, negative, etc.
- At the same time as you’re interpreting the event, automatic changes occur in your body. This includes things such as releasing neurochemicals, hormones, and changes in your body, such as temperature changes, heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and nerve impulses.
- As the automatic processes get started in your body, you then begin to physically react. These are voluntary responses, such as facial expressions, changing your posture, taking action, and verbal expressions.
- All of these pieces come together to allow you to name the emotion you’re experiencing.
This is a totally hard concept to explain as well as to understand. Here are some examples to further demonstrate how emotions work.
You’re driving in traffic when someone cuts you off, almost causing you to get into an accident. (prompting event).
You register the danger, as your heart-rate spikes, you get a dose of adrenaline, your stomach drops, and you gasp. (interpretation, automatic changes).
You scowl and yell “Watch it you jerk!” (voluntary reaction, verbal expression)
Emotion experienced? Anger.
You sit down with a nice cup of coffee from your favorite coffee shop. The person working at the espresso bar smiles at you (prompting event).
You feel butterflies in your stomach, your spirits lift, and you feel giddy (automatic changes).
You smile in return (voluntary reaction).
Emotion experienced? Infatuation
As you can see from these examples, there are physical body cues that accompany each emotion. They can overlap and some emotions may feel very similar to one another. It is also worth mentioning that there can be multiple prompting events. For example, after smiling at the person at the espresso bar, maybe he or she gives you his or her number. That can be a new prompting event.
Once you get the hang of identifying the emotions you’re feeling on a regular basis, you can start looking at “secondary emotions.” Most typically these are emotions such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Secondary emotions are the result of feeling an emotion about your emotion, such as feeling guilty about being disappointed.
How Do I Know What Emotion I’m Experiencing?
This is by far the hardest question. Learning the language of emotions is not an easy thing, especially if you have spent many years not knowing what they are or how to articulate them. The key to truly learning emotions is to practice practice practice.
Practice is key- which includes practicing when you’re happy and practicing when you are sad. The more you evaluate these emotions, the better able you will be to identify them and thus process them.
To help get you started, here are some general descriptions of some emotions.
- Happiness: For many, happiness is best described by feelings of lightness in the body and in the spirit. Your skin may feel tingly and you may feel like you can jump out of your skin. Smiling and laughter are often expressions of happiness. Happiness can also be described as being in a good mood, being good-tempered, and being bubbly. Tasks often feel easy and the time may pass quickly.
- Sadness: Sadness is often described by feelings of heaviness. It may be difficult to complete tasks as it is hard to get motivated. Sleepiness is common, as well as the tendency to isolate yourself. Crying is a common physical expression of sadness, as well as feelings of a lump in your throat, a pit in your stomach, or anxiety.
- Anger: Anger is one of the most varied emotions. Anger can be very hot in that your face and skin feel flushed and you might start sweating. You may raise your voice and act impulsively. You may ball your fists, and make your posture taller and more leaned forward. Crying is possible. Anger can also be very cold in that you become very controlled and contained. Often the voice lowers and becomes softer. There are feelings of fury that are measured rather than impulsive, as behavior and words are very calculated.
- Fear: Fear is pretty much universal. Often it is characterized by large spikes in adrenaline that allow your body to react quickly to the situation. Some people react to fear by crying, screaming, gasping, panting, laughing, or by reacting physically such as to lash out physically.
- Joy: Joy is a sub-set of happiness. However, joy is often a term used as a bigger expression of happiness. Joy is often about feelings of endless possibilities and potential. You may feel on top of the world and empowered to do anything you set your mind to.
- Love: Love is another varied emotion from person to person. Some feel butterflies in their stomach, others feel tingly, and others still feel a lightness about them. Some people smile unprovoked, or hum and sing. Infatuation may be a more physical expression, whereas true love is a deeper emotional feeling.
What Do I Say/Do In An Emotional Situation?
So hooray! You’ve learned the basics about how to identify your emotions. What do you do if all you feel are an abundance of emotions all the time? Emotions can be extremely overwhelming depending on timing, space, and issues involved. The trick to regulating your emotions is to find ways of slowing down those emotional processes.
As the outline suggests above, if you can interject some logic into the emotional experience, it is possible to slow the feeling down enough that you can process it on your terms, instead of letting it control you. A good way to introduce logic includes “observe and describe.” Observe what you are feeling in your body. Where do you feel it? How strong is that feeling? What is prompting these feelings?
All of these questions do much to take an emotional step back. You can also use visualization techniques. Imagine that you are taking your emotion and placing it on a shelf in a box. You’re not ignoring it, you’re just setting it aside. Ignoring emotions often make them stronger and they return time and time again. If I say not to think about elephants, all you think about are elephants.
Here are some other ways of taking an emotional step back:
- Breathe breathe breathe.
- Count to ten.
- Take a deep breath in, and release it slowly.
- Take a break – even if this means going to the bathroom to get some space.
- Talk it out.
- Journal about your emotions – What did you feel? When? What about?
- Mental health day.
There are also times in which you are in the middle of an intense situation. Here are some phrases that may help you take that emotional step back if needed.
- I feel too upset to talk about this right now.
- I want time to think about how to respond.
- I feel [emotion].
- It seems like we both/all are very invested in this issue. Let’s take some time to think about it, calm down, and approach the issue from a fresh perspective.
Remember, it’s all about taking care of you. Emotions don’t have to control and mystify you. Think of it as another language to learn. Practice in a variety of situations, even if that means taking the emotion apart after the experience, and remember to take a break and find ways to regain control of the situation.
Page last edited 7/2019