What Are Emotions? 2 steps to relearning what they are and how to manage them.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

What are emotions? This may be a question you are sure you know the answer to. However, if someone asked you to define them what would you say?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you found it harder than you think. One, because there are a lot of myths out in society about emotions and how we should feel them. And two, because emotions are felt differently by different people, making the answer more nebulous, more abstract.

What are emotions?

Emotions are intense feelings linked to situations that are either real or imagined. They are messages from the brain signalling that either a threat or reward has been identified in our environment. The messages are then accompanied by a physical response which drives you to either turn away from the threat (or take action against it) or turn towards the reward.

In simple terms, something happens in your environment and your brain interprets it. If it is deemed a threat, the brain releases stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These will lead you to feel emotions such as fear, anxiety and/or anger. You will then feel the urge to turn, run or fight (see this article for more on the fight-or-flight response). If the brain interprets the situation as rewarding it will release hormones that make you feel good such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. You will feel emotions such as happiness, interest and/or arousal, and you will feel the urge to turn towards the situation.

These emotional reactions have played an integral part in the survival and evolution of our species. They have caused us to fight, hunt, hide, reproduce and socialise at the appropriate times.

Nowadays our emotions, our environment and our responses are not as simple as they used to be. The threats and rewards not as clear. However, the brain systems remain the same. For example, the situations that our brains determine to be threats or rewards are based on our beliefs regarding what is good and bad in this world. In cave man times, beliefs about threats and rewards were linked to survival of the tribe (e.g. tiger equals threat, no food equals threat, someone stealing precious resources equals threat). Nowadays, our beliefs are driven by our early home environment and then superseded by media and whole-world views.

We now grow up in a world where being seen as perfect is the ultimate goal. Meaning the brain internalises the message that anything other than perfect equals failure (see my previous article on this for more information). Anything other than perfect equals THREAT.

More than that, your brain doesn’t know the difference between real life threats and rewards, and those that you imagine. Therefore, worrying about an event happening in the future triggers the same threat response as a very real tiger standing in your doorway would.

Due to these changes our emotions are being triggered multiple times throughout the day, by situations that may not really deserve the emotional response they receive. For us to really understand our emotions we need to learn clearly what they are, what they mean and how to manage them.

How do we learn about emotions? Or… why we as a society tend to be so bad at understanding and managing them.

The way we experience our emotions links inextricably to the way we learn about them.

When we are babies we have lots of experiences that we can’t make sense of. For example, we feel hunger, cold and fear for the first time. This makes us cry out. If we are lucky, an adult who sees this distress will respond by saying something like “you are crying because you are hungry, here is some food, it’s ok, it’s going to be ok”. For those fortunate enough to have this experience, your brain then learns: this feeling equals hunger, when I feel like this it is ok, I just have to find food.

Over time, with the right support, we build up an understanding of the separate feelings we have, what they mean and what action should be taken during those times. This is great if we have people around us who are fully clear on the different emotions, their causes and the appropriate ways to self soothe. However, even parents with the best intentions and emotional intelligence don’t always know the exact emotions you are feeling and how to help. So, we have to look elsewhere to fill in the gaps in our understandings of emotion.

One major source of learning comes from the media. Unfortunately the media cannot be counted upon as a reliable source for learning about emotions. For example, the media constantly presents us with images and stories of ‘perfect’ people with ‘perfect’ lives; People who don’t show emotions other than happiness. In fact, usually, when people are shown to be emotional they are often in the role of someone ‘over the top’, ‘unstable’ or ‘ill’. For example, people who are angry are often depicted as dangerous or violent. People who are anxious are often depicted as neurotic or as over thinkers.

On top of that we constantly hear phrases spoken (either in the media or in real life) whenever people show emotion such as”be good”, “snap out of it”, “it’s no big deal”, “you’re overly sensitive”.

The cumulative effect of these messages? A belief system based on the idea that: 1) good people don’t show emotion or even feel emotions; 2) feelings and emotions that aren’t happiness are unacceptable, potentially dangerous and shouldn’t be shown.

No wonder most of us avoid our emotions. No wonder we become scared of them and bottle them up.

Bottling up emotions is like trying to push a beachball under water. You can hold it down for a moment but it will just pop up unexpectedly elsewhere. When the emotion inevitably does pop up again it usually creates more concern as we criticise ourselves for experiencing the emotion in the first place, and then worry that it’s very presence means something is wrong with us. As the self criticism builds so does the distress.

How to regain control of your emotions

Step 1: Relearning the facts

To better manage our emotions we first need to learn a new set of facts about emotions. Here are a few to start with:

1. Emotions are normal. Some feel good, some not so good. However, there is no such thing as a good or bad emotion. They are all normal, including anger and anxiety.

2. Emotions are messages from the brain that it has detected a threat or reward. Any change in emotion you experience is due to this. However, remember that the brain doesn’t know the difference between something happening in real life or in your imagination. Also, remember that your brain now thinks threats and rewards are things linked to the media’s portrayal of success as a human. Therefore, we have to look for the message the brain is giving us and decide whether we agree with it, or not.

3. Everyone is different. Even though we all experience emotions, each person differs in terms of the amount of emotion they experience in any given moment or situation. Some people will experience stronger levels of emotions than others. This is not a weakness. It is just a fact.

4. Emotions vary by situation. You may feel something in certain circumstances and not in another circumstance. This is also normal.

5. Emotions are temporary. Emotional responses arise and (if they are listened to and not feared) they then subside and fade away. On occasion they last longer and form a mood. However, they are not permanent.

6. You can feel many emotions at the same time. Have you ever noticed that it is hard to know how you feel? Or that you feel happy and sad at the same time? Emotions are complicated, the messages we get from our environment are complicated. It is ok to feel many things all at the same time.

7. Emotions should always be acknowledged and listened to, however they should not always be believed. See point 3 above and read this article for more information.

8. Emotional responses usually start in the body. We have become so out of touch with our bodies and so stuck in our minds that we usually miss the early warning signs and don’t register change until the emotion is strong enough to derail us from the present moment.

Step 2: Learning to recognise and manage emotions before they take over

I often talk to people who feel that they don’t know what emotions they are experiencing. For example, people may know that they should be feeling something but they don’t know what. Conversely, I also speak to people who feel totally trapped in their emotions. Therefore, the following steps are for everyone. The aim being, to build an understanding of what each emotion feels like and then learn how to respond early on when a physical change is noted, so that it doesn’t take over. So what to do:

1. Reconnect with your body by practising a body scan. At multiple points throughout the day, close your eyes and scan your body, moving from toes to top of your head, simply noticing what physical sensations are present. This will help reconnect you with your body. At first you may not feel anything. Don’t worry that’s normal. With time and practise you will start to notice sensations. As you complete the scan you can label the emotions you notice. However, I really recommend labelling the physical experiences you notice instead. For example, instead of saying “I am angry”, you might say “I notice that my chest is tight, I feel tears and a lump in my throat”. The more often you do this, the more quickly you will learn to notice the physical changes in your body that suggest an emotional response. You will start to notice that these changes are normal. You will also then be able to react appropriately at an earlier stage. For example, you will know that a tight chest means anger and that it might be time to change the topic of conversation or do a breathing exercise.

2. Learn more about your emotional responses through journalling. Sit down with a pen and paper. Write at the top of the page “when… (insert situation here) happened I felt…”. Even if you don’t have the words for how you feel or felt, just write freely (frantically if you need to). Do not try to create full prose or something worth reading. All you need to be doing is getting the words out, any that are in your head. Do not worry if things come up that don’t feel linked to the topic at hand. Finish the journal with 3 sentences linked to what you have learnt through this experience and then re-read it and tear it up. Over time you will learn more about the situations that cause specific physical and emotional feelings. You will have also started to process and release the feelings as you have got them out onto paper.

3. Learn more about different emotions. For example, I have written about the basis of anxiety, anger and stress here and here.

4. Learn to self soothe. If you realise that you are experiencing lots of emotions that make you feel quickly overwhelmed, practice breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation (click here for direct instructions for these exercises). These will help you re-centre yourself in the moment and will send a message to the brain that you are safe. Practice these when calm so that you can use them successfully any moment you feel start to feel overwhelmed by an emotion.

5. Remember that emotions are normal and transitory. If you often feel concerned about your emotions and what they mean, learn the 8 facts presented above. Repeat them to yourself whenever you start to worry about the emotions you experience. Remember, all emotions pass if you allow them to arise and release.

6. Learn mindfulness meditation. This kind of meditation involves allowing thoughts and feelings to arise, observing them and letting them go. It involves remaining present and focussed on the breath. Over time practice of this will increase your understanding of the patterns you have (e.g. which situations and thoughts/feelings cause you to want to react in certain ways) but more importantly it will help you create space between the stimulus (situation causing the feelings) and your response. For example, you will learn that when you feel or think something, you can choose to appraise it and then choose how to respond (rather than responding in a knee-jerk fashion). Click here for a mindful meditation exercise.

7. Seek support. If you feel that your thoughts and emotions are too much for you to manage right now, speak to someone you trust and/or a therapist. They can help you to understand and regain control over your emotions and your life.

Remember, experiencing lots of emotions does not mean you are weak or failing, or that something is wrong with you. It just means you may need a little support to understand the beliefs that are driving the emotions, and that you will benefit from some solid coping skills that help you to manage them.

That’s it

I realise that there was lots of information in today’s post. Lots of information that may be already very familiar to you, or may feel surprisingly new.

To summarise: emotions are messages that our brains want us to pay attention to. They usually link to a perceived threat or reward in our environment. These threats and rewards are linked to our beliefs about the world and what is good and what is not so good. This means that our emotions are sometimes triggered and perpetuated by situations that may not really be threatening or really rewarding. More than that, our brains don’t know the difference between real life events and those that are imagined. This means that we have emotional responses to things that have happened and to those that haven’t and may never happen.

In order for us to get better at understanding and managing our emotions, we need to learn new rules about emotions. We need to learn not to fear them. We need to learn instead to feel them and let them go. So, have a go at my list of recommendations and see what a difference it makes.


I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my Blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video link.

Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.


Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider.

Originally published at drsoph.com.

Clinical Psychologist and Yoga Teacher. Writing about mental health and effective strategies for improving your wellbeing.

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