What are emotions?

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Various events trigger emotions in us. What are these experiences that sometimes prove difficult and unpleasant to experience? We know that they arise outside our consciousness as an automatic reaction to external circumstances, bodily sensations and/or thoughts. E.g. an unexpected meeting of a friend out on the town triggers joy. When we feel pain while squatting, we experience anxiety about our health. The thought that a neighbour is cheating on his wife triggers revulsion in us. What are emotions from a biological point of view? We were equipped with them to increase our chances of survival. They are an important defence mechanism. Emotions are automatic, arise outside our consciousness and occur faster than our analysis of the situation. First, information about the disturbing stimulus reaches the amygdala, making us feel the first fear. The nervous system sometimes prefers to overreact rather than overlook a threat. We have a prefrontal cortex, which has an analytical function and is responsible for logical thinking. It also looks at a situation and assesses the potential risk. If it deems them low, it sends a message to the amygdala that everything is ok. The false alarm is cancelled. The problem is that we sometimes use emotional justification. We assume that because we are experiencing anxiety, there is a real danger. The example above shows that we need unpleasant emotions because they signal things to us. They inform us of danger, the crossing of our psychological boundaries, loss and the violation of existing social norms. We can compare them to the alarm systems in our cars. How can we deal with our emotions so that they do not overwhelm us and make us overstimulated?

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Why do we need emotions?

When we feel anxiety or sadness, and we are unable to regulate our emotions, these seem threatening to us. We fear that we will fall into a serious illness because of them. We wrongly assume that sadness will lead us to depression and anxiety to loss of senses. In such a situation, we want to stop feeling and free ourselves from difficult emotions. We see them as unnecessary and harmful. Why do we need emotions? Contrary to popular belief, we need a whole range of them to cope with different circumstances. As I mentioned earlier, emotions are our internal alarm system. They inform us about different issues so that we can implement an appropriate action strategy.
When we feel anger, we are uncomfortable with something or someone is overstepping our boundaries. For example, the boss favours his colleague, so he blames us for not making sure she completes her task. We know we have no obligation to do so. We see that the supervisor’s protégé often takes advantage of her position and disregards things because she does not face any consequences. Anger shows us that we have been treated unfairly and this situation does not suit us. We can turn it into positive actions, such as strengthening our own boundaries or changing our place of employment. Later in this article I will discuss what emotions we have and what they signal to us.
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How do emotions affect us?

We welcome pleasant emotions with open arms. We like to be accompanied by joy because we treat it on a par with happiness. We forget that difficult emotions are also part of our existence, because they are signposts of sorts. They make it easier for us to navigate our daily lives and help us to make decisions, if we can read their meaning correctly. Unfortunately, sometimes there is an emotional block. We try to disallow certain experiences because we perceive them as inappropriate and threatening. Sometimes this is due to a restrictive approach to religion. We believe that jealousy is a sin, so we suppress it within ourselves, which only makes us feel worse and worse. If we were brought up by parents who were emotionally immature and who were horrified by our sadness because they couldn’t cope with their own, we repress it. Let’s not blame them, they did everything they could. They simply lacked the right tools to help us. When there is disagreement about grief in the home, it is very common for there to be a masking of emotions. We express our sense of loss through anger, which sometimes turns into verbal or physical aggression. The suppression of emotions is a common practice that involves a lack of understanding of their role. Anger or jealousy triggers a certain amount of discomfort, which is why we think it is best to become immune to them. We are afraid that if we let them invade our lives, something bad will happen. We will fall into depression or madness. I would like to emphasise that it is not emotions that threaten us, but the wrong approach to them and the attribution of destructive power to them. Anger, sadness and grief all pass and are temporary. Paradoxically, the more we repress something, the more it presses on. When we say to ourselves: I am feeling sad about the attitude of a friend who has disappeared from my life like a ghost, after a while there is an improvement. This is because we have accepted the emotion and seen the hidden meaning in it. How do emotions affect us? If we do not know how to regulate them, because nobody taught us, we often lose our temper. We get carried away by them, causing them to flood us and overwhelm us. Sometimes our lack of control over our emotions turns into aggression and impulsive actions. We say certain words without thinking, thus hurting others and damaging relationships that are important to us. If we use emotional justification and treat fear as fact, we can experience anxiety. It is worth noting that this is not the fault of the experiences themselves, but of cognitive errors. Some of us then complain of intrusive thoughts. E.g. we felt a prick in our chest, which triggered anxiety in us. Since fear is tantamount to fact for us, we believe that a cancer is developing. We “wind ourselves up”, which makes us feel more frequent pricks in the breast and become even more afraid. When we go to the doctor, it turns out that nothing has developed in the nipple; instead, we struggle with anxiety.

What are the types of emotions?

When discussing different types of emotions, we often reflexively divide them into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions. This classification is not very fortunate, as it encourages us to run away from the latter. We wish to eliminate them from our lives. Meanwhile, fear informs us of a threat. If we did not feel it, we could easily be attacked and robbed. Fear sometimes protects us and plays an adaptive role. I encourage us to distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant emotions. I believe this division is more realistic. Pleasant emotions include joy and euphoria, among others. Unpleasant ones include sadness, anxiety, disgust and shame. Excitement often proves to be a borderline experience. Sometimes we find it pleasant when it occurs before a date or a holiday with a friend. Sometimes we perceive it as unpleasant and overwhelming, this happens when we are waiting for the results of an important test.

Basic emotions

Emotions are an issue to which much scientific research has been devoted. It is currently being debated among psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists. Paul Ekman and his colleagues carried out an experiment that resulted in a distinction being made between basic emotions. For years, these were considered universal and attributed to a specific area of the brain. It was believed that we all feel them, no matter what culture we come from. We express them with similar facial expressions, which facilitates interpersonal communication. Lisa Feldman Barrett challenged Ekman’s approach. She has developed a theory of constructed emotion. She assumes that how we feel is influenced by our personal experiences, state of health and relaxation. Emotions are an extremely individual issue. After all, we are not all afraid of a thunderstorm or pricking our skin with a needle. Sometimes a new project makes us happy and excited. At other times it overwhelms us because we are struggling with fatigue. Lisa Feldman Barrett believes that there is no such thing as a universal emotion. Different cultures talk about slightly different experiences. Sometimes even the terms they use do not find their equivalent in our language. The research she has conducted shows that emotion does not arise in a specific, specified area of the brain. Furthermore, Lisa Feldman Barrett points out that we read the same facial expression differently. Some will say we are angry, while others will say we have been surprised by something. Our expression varies enormously, with some showing it clearly and others not. Different tribes read the same facial expression differently. Referring to Ekman’s research, he distinguished between 2 types of emotion, the list that follows covers the basic emotions. These include:

-joy, which is associated with contentment;
– sadness, which accompanies loss;
-revulsion occurs when someone or something arouses disgust in us;
– surprise is triggered when something unexpected happens;
-anger shows that we don’t like a situation and don’t accept crossing certain boundaries.

Complex emotions

Compound emotions are the result of experiencing different basic emotions simultaneously. They can be compared to painters obtaining colours. There are 3 primary colours. Mixing red with blue, we see how purple is created. Shame, on the other hand, is a combination of fear and disgust. External circumstances and our thoughts generate different emotions. The types of our experiences are worth considering individually. Lisa Feldman Barret has shown that our emotions are a unique construct. Most people declare that they like Christmas. This makes us grieve every year because our Christmas, due to family conflicts, differs from what happens in other homes. Although this emotion seems inadequate to the joy of Christmas that is promoted in the media, it is ours and as legitimate as can be.

Negative’ emotions are met with social disapproval. We perceive shame, jealousy or grief as something wrong and illegitimate. Very often we repress them in order not to expose ourselves to rejection by the group. This attitude harms us. Psychologists know this and therefore encourage us to divide emotions into pleasant and unpleasant ones. By labelling them ‘negative’, we begin to believe that there is something wrong with experiencing them. We believe that our lives become worse because of them. We are harmed by repressed ‘negative’ emotions. How do we deal with them and stop judging them in order to lead a full and fulfilling life?

Emotions vs. feelings

An emotion is a quick reaction to a stimulus, which can be an external factor, a sensation coming from the body or a thought. It arises in the limbic system, the old part of the brain. From an evolutionary point of view, emotions act as a defence mechanism and are therefore primary. Our consciousness does not participate in them. The stimulus of a potential threat, which arrives in the amygdala, triggers the first fear in fractions of a second. At the same time, it is analysed by the prefrontal cortex, but the aforementioned process takes a little longer. Its result also goes to the amygdala. If the amygdala cortex decides that nothing alarming is happening, it silences the anxiety. Analysing the example above, the emotion is anxiety and the feeling is calmness. Emotions are primitive and automatic. Feelings, on the other hand, are their interpretation and require the involvement of the thinking part of the brain. They take on a more abstract character. Feelings often depend on our experience and will. An experiment conducted by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron demonstrates this very well. The men they invited crossed a bridge. One was stable and the other swayed. At the end waited interviewers – attractive women and attractive men. They were asking them to fill in a college credit questionnaire. The men who crossed the wobbly bridge were eager to help the women and take a phone number from them. They rated their level of sexual arousal as high. The study participants interpreted for themselves the emotions they experienced while crossing the unstable bridge. They interpreted their fear (emotion) as sexual arousal (feeling).
Emotions are like waves that flow in and out. This process happens relatively quickly if we listen to them and do not invalidate them. Feelings represent a state that lasts longer, e.g. falling in love, a mother’s love for her child.
How do you deal with emotions?

Patients often ask me how to deal with ‘negative’ emotions. My answer to them is to stop judging them. When we consider anger or sadness as a ‘negative’ emotion, we start to dismiss it. We wait with a watch in hand for it to pass. We unconsciously block its flow because we do not accept it. In reality, it’s not the ‘bad’ emotion that harms us, it’s our approach to these important alarm signals that we don’t want to fully listen to.

How do you deal with your emotions? It is helpful to use the following steps.

-Recognise the emotion. It is very common for us to feel bad but not be able to say what it is because of. If we notice that nothing bad is happening, we are just experiencing some emotion, we will take a step forward.
Accept the emotion. We used to see anger, sadness, shame, jealousy in a negative way. Our attitude triggers an emotional block that harms us. When we put up a dam and the water comes in, this dam starts to push harder and harder. At some point, it leads to its breaking. The water then pours over houses and fields. It is the same with emotions. The more we shy away from them, the more they intensify. One day they will come to the fore and flood us like a tsunami. We can avoid this by accepting them when they arise. Let us observe the emotions we experience, but let us not judge them.
-Give proper weight to them. Emotions are just emotions, not facts, it is normal for them to appear in our lives. They are not indicative of our mental problems. They accompany all healthy people. The anxiety we feel at the sight of a man we meet does not indicate that he has hurt us in the past and that we have deliberately forgotten about it. He may remind us of an aggressive colleague from high school.
-Look at emotions contextually. Think about what they are informing you about. What are you experiencing in your life and how does it make you feel? Did your beloved dog move across the rainbow bridge in mid-August? Every year around this date you may feel a growing and unwarranted tension. When you notice it, this awareness will act as a trigger for you.
-Don’t rush the emotions. I mentioned that they are passing and temporary. This can give rise to the misconception that when we notice them, we will feel better after 15 minutes. When we count down the time, expecting them to pass, we do not accept them. This makes them take longer to flow through our mind and body.

Difficult emotions

How do we deal with excess emotions? According to the latest psychological research, strong and intense sensations upset our internal balance. It does not matter whether we perceive the emotion as pleasant or unpleasant. The key is their intensity, which sometimes exhausts our brains, causing overstimulation. Euphoria (pleasant emotions) over a partner’s proposal harms us just as much as deep sadness (unpleasant emotions) after a divorce. It causes chaos and a flurry of thoughts in our head, which exhausts the brain. Excessive emotions do us no good either. When there is a lot going on in our lives in a short space of time, we feel overwhelmed. How can we avoid being overstimulated by an excess of emotions?

-Measure your strength against your strength. Don’t undertake multiple demanding activities on the same day.
-Plan your day in terms of energy distribution. In the morning, do the things that most need your attention. Leave those you can handle with less concentration for last.
-Abandon multitasking. Multitasking makes us emotionally and intellectually chaotic. It drains us of energy and causes overstimulation.
-Identify the factors that trigger excess emotions. If you usually leave the doctor shattered, make an appointment in the afternoon so you can meet urgent work commitments in the morning.
-Give yourself permission to have worse days. Sometimes you can’t avoid excess emotions because life writes surprising scenarios. We have no control over what will happen during the day. By adopting an accepting attitude and acknowledging our right to be worse, we will feel better.

All of us experience difficult emotions at times. How do we deal with them? It is helpful to do the right exercises. You will read more about them later in this article.

Exercises for dealing with emotions

How do you deal with difficult emotions? I have given you some helpful tips above, but these are not exhaustive. Some of us are more in touch with our emotions and will therefore find it easier to implement some self-help activities. Others can’t identify them, so the above recommendations won’t help them much. If you are wondering how to deal with your emotions, the exercises I have prepared can be a great support. Self-regulation of emotions is a skill that some of us have trained with the support of our parents. If you don’t have this ability, there is nothing stopping you from changing it. I have emphasised many times on the blog that our brain shows great plasticity. New synaptic connections are formed even in seniors. If we replace old neuronal circuits with new ones that are responsible for supportive attitudes, we will increase the quality of our lives. Techniques for dealing with emotions need to be practised. This promotes the consolidation of knowledge and specific attitudes. We can compare it to learning to read or solve mathematical equations. The more we practice, the better we master a skill. Do you want to establish a better relationship with your emotions? The ABCs of Your Emotions course will show you step by step how to recognise, accept and interpret them. If you are open to working on your own, come with me today on a fascinating journey through the meanders of your experiences and feelings:) You will see how “good” and “bad” emotions help you on a daily basis.


How do you deal with ‘bad’ emotions? If you have reached this point, you already know that judging how you feel does not serve you. “Good” and “bad” emotions – they all have an important role to play in our lives. They inform a lot of things and do so automatically to protect us from potential danger. By using emotional justification, we forget that what we feel does not equate to facts. The human brain has accelerated certain processes to enable us to survive. Anxiety, jealousy or anger are worth subjecting to rational analysis. Let’s listen to what the prefrontal cortex has to tell us. Very often these ‘negative’ emotions protect us from threats, boundary violations or loss of a loved one. I think it is more legitimate to ask how to deal with difficult emotions. Anger, fear or jealousy create some discomfort, but when we accept them, improvement will follow. Let us not judge our emotions, let us not hold them back, but let them flow. Let us look at them with curiosity, but try to avoid drawing hasty conclusions. Emotions are not facts, they are just automatic reactions to certain mental constructs. Car alarms can be legitimate and false, and the same is true of our experiences. When we hear a beep, we run to the window to see what triggered it. If we see a cat run past the car, we turn off the alarm so as not to make our neighbours miserable. It is useful to deal with emotions in a similar way after the stimuli have been subjected to rational analysis.

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