Just what is an emotion?

In this Olympics season emotions are running high. But, what are “emotions”.

We all have them. We all express them. We all criticise them:

“Stop, being so emotional.”

“You are being over emotional.”

“I’ve stopped being emotional.”

“Why do you keep hiding your emotions?”

Do we ever stop to think if we really understand what we mean or even agree what an emotion actually is? What is an emotion? I ask this question of my clients, my colleagues, my friends and my family. It’s usually followed by surprise and confusion, then by deep thinking and the struggle to find the right words.

It can end in distraction, as in

“Oh for heaven’s sake everyone knows what an emotion is!”

“It’s simple, it’s……..it’s….. what you feel …..when……”

“You’re just trying to put me off……”

I like to cut through all of this with a simple equation:

Physical Sensation + Meaning = Emotion

For example:-

Knotted feeling in my gut + I am in danger = Fear

Tension and heavy lump in my stomach + I will be hurt in some way later = Anxiety

Voice telling me I am crap + I am totally useless = Depression

Seeing pictures in my mind of violence that happened to me + It’s happening now = Trauma

These are all from my clients and to be honest from me as well. They are all subjective. By this I mean that there may be patterns that are similar between us but each one is personal and is only truly felt by ourselves alone.

We respond to the events around us unconsciously and physically. For a large number of our responses we don’t need a thinking, cognitive, response. In some cases such as jumping when we hear an unexpected, short, loud noise, we simply react. (Insome cases the stimulus may never beyond our spinal cord – but that’s the brain as well, isn’t it?)

There is no obvious thinking process and behavioural strategy that we “decide” to engage. The physical jump caused by the activation of the limbic system deep inside our brains. You and I exist in the world because our ancestors responded to such danger signals and jumped out of danger and so survived.

Since the early evolution of the brain we have developed the large lobes of the cerebral cortex – all that crinkly stuff we think of as “the brain”. However, the limbic system is still there responding and sending out its signals. It can respond to both stimuli outside and inside our bodies.

So, we experience a sensation in response to either an external or internal (memory) sound, picture, smell et.c and this is processed by the limbic system which responds so creating another physical sensation. Our conscious mind then attaches a meaning to this sensation and thus we have an “emotion”.

What I then do in the process of therapy is to offer, suggest or provide an alternative sensation, meaning or emotional label. Actually, if I can persuade my client to create any of these then change comes much more quickly.

Try it for yourself:

Physical Sensation + Meaning = Emotion

Change any one of the above and notice how the others change in response.

Where does this lead you to?

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