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Understanding Emotion

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We often think of emotions as being either positive or negative. But the idea that we should aim to only have ‘positive’ emotions such as happiness, hope and compassion is not helpful because it suggests that we should try to avoid or suppress ‘negative’ emotions such as loneliness, resentment, and jealousy. More than the actual feelings themselves being the problem, it is our relationship to these emotions that causes our struggle.

Our relationship with different emotions is established in childhood. A lot of us grew up believing that being emotional is bad and harmful. We were repeatedly told to stop crying, don’t worry, calm down, to stop being rude, angry, ungrateful, etc. If we have received messages that some emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness are wrong and unwelcome in some way, we are likely to feel bad about them, suppress them or panic when they come up. The fact is, all emotions have a positive purpose. Emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness might not feel comfortable, and their expressions may have been modeled to us in extreme ways. But they are entirely natural, healthy emotions, and they do have a beneficial purpose.

What is Emotion?
Emotion is not an irrational response or simply a “feeling” that accompanies thought. Rather, it is a high-level system that integrates a person’s awareness of innate needs and goals with feedback from the environment and predicted consequences of actions (Frijda, 1986). In other words, according to Bowlby (1991), the main function of emotion is to communicate one’s needs, motives, and priorities to one’s self and others. Therefore, being tuned out of emotional experience is like navigating through life without a compass.

Different Kinds of Emotion:
Today, there is a general agreement among theorists and researchers about the different kinds of emotion. Ekman (2003) identifies six to eight core emotional responses. These core emotions involve distinct facial expressions that can be reorganized and ascribed common meanings across cultures. The core emotional responses can be outlined as follows:

Approach emotions
Joy, evoking relaxed engagement and openness
Surprise, evoking curiosity
Anger, evoking assertion and moving toward goals
Avoidance emotions
Shame, evoking withdrawal and hiding
Fear, evoking fleeing or freezing
Sadness, evoking withdrawal or comfort

The Functions of Emotion:
Emotion orients and engages. Emotions grabs our attention and guides perception. It focuses us on what is relevant to our needs and wants, telling us what is salient, and engaging our attention in an absorbing way. For example, imagine you are sitting in a classroom and absorbed in listening to a lecture, but when the fire alarm rings your anxiety takes over and changes your world instantly. All internal systems reorganize to escape the building.

Emotion shapes meaning-making. It helps us to make the best choices and rational decisions. When we ignore our emotions, we become caught up in pondering all possible alternatives and we have nothing to orient us to what we need or want. Emotions give us a felt sense of what really matters to us.

Emotion motivates us. The word emotion comes from the Latin, emovere,“to move us”.  Emotion literally energizes us and primes a specific kind of action. For example, anger usually primes movement toward something that is perceived as frustrating a goal or threatening well-being, and shame primes hiding and withdrawing.

Emotion communicates with others and sets up their responses. Our nervous systems are designed to be sensitive to emotional nonverbal cues from others (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, and etc.). We are programmed in a way to sense, mirror or imitate these cues. We are able to feel in our bodies what we see in others and react accordingly. This happens rapidly and intuitively in ways that not only allow us to anticipate others’ responses but also potentiates emotional bonding and caregiving.

How to Manage Emotions:
Judging a feeling as bad or wrong usually escalates our discomfort. As psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel would say, you gotta “name it to tame it!” Once you notice you are having a strong emotional reaction, the next step is to describe, or name it – whether to yourself or out loud. For example, you might say to yourself “I am feeling angry” or “I have a tight ball of nerves in my gut.”

Choosing words to describe subtle emotions jump-starts your executive brain and calms down your emotional limbic brain. The key is strengthening your ability to monitor your emotions and body sensations by naming and taming them, not allowing them to overwhelm you or hijack your ability to think and make good decisions!

Next time you feel something, instead of ignoring or suppressing your emotions, try to:
Identify what you are feeling
Where do you feel it in your body? How intense is it?
Stay interested, be curious, and accepting of the feeling.
Express and externalize the feeling (e.g. journal, art, talk, body movement, cry).


Shahrzad Jamali, MA-MFT is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who helps her clients make sense of and better regulate their emotions. Make an appointment to see her at our office in Surrey or via secure videoconference. 

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