Life is mostly a subjective experience. The way we experience life is based on expectations we create and place on people, places, and situations. They may or may not meet what we thought should happen, and so, daily, we are experiencing a broad spectrum of emotions.
Emotions are our way to interpret the external world. Denying emotions does not bring anything good. Rather, we want to learn to be attentive. It is our mental-emotional space, thinking, and feeling that are the source of most of our stress. Being aware of our mental and emotional state has a significant effect on our health and wellbeing.
What is emotion?
An emotion can be defined as a mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and often comes with physiological changes. This wordy sentence means that after an initial stimulus which can be internal (such as thought, memory) or external (noise), an emotion arises. This is a natural process that we cannot change. The emotion evokes then a response in the body, for example, we could jump when startled by an unexpected noise.
Emotions are instinctual, they come from a part of our brain called the limbic system which helps us react and protect ourselves. This part of our brain is evolutionary the oldest and essential for survival.
But we have more parts of our brain, as you’ll learn below, that are responsible for assigning the emotion meaning and creating a whole story around it. Such as when someone smiles and this smile starts a whole movie screening in the head of the receiver, seeing themselves madly in love for the rest of their lives.
How many emotions do we have?
It is said we have around 300 words to express various emotions. That’s pretty impressive, right? But according to American psychologist Paul Ekman, they all are derived from 7 primary emotions, which are hardwired in our biology: anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, sadness, and contempt.
Even though we all have these universal emotions, what makes us emotional varies from one to another. The individual emotional response to a situation is conditioned by cultural influence as well as unique personal experience.
We can’t choose which emotion the brain creates but we have the power to choose our response to it. This requires awareness.
As humans, we can ask ourselves, how aware are we of our emotions? Do we recognize them when they come, or do we get lost in the story that the mind created? Do we unconsciously get carried away by the movie that’s playing in the private cinema of our heads?
Feelings, the next stage
A feeling is a conscious and subjective experience of an emotion. This is affected by the frontal part of the brain, the thinking part that creates beliefs, values, memories, and future projections.
If an emotion proceeds into the next stage, the feeling, and this feeling lasts long or repeats itself due to our way of thinking, it becomes a mood. Take as an example a person who has been bitten by a dog a few times in childhood. Living in a neighborhood full of dogs would mean that the barking will trigger anxiety. This would likely result in a mood and sink deeper over time, becoming a personality trait. So this would be the person known for being afraid of dogs.
Emotions are short-lived. The rest is choice
Emotions actually have a life span of only 90 seconds. If we don’t create a story in our cognitive, thinking mind, the emotion will pass. We hear noise, fear arises, we jump and then we forget it and move on. Or, we start thinking we’re in danger because of the meaning we gave to the situation and the story that attached itself to it.
Once again, we cannot choose an emotion, but we can determine how we process it. Emotions cannot be controlled, even if we try and suppress them, they will come back in some shape and form, sooner or later, most often as a disease.
Body, the storage house of emotions
Emotions trigger a chemical response in the body. In case of a particularly strong response, which we don’t have the capacity to process, this can be stored in the physical body. This is how past traumas and unprocessed feelings get stored in the body.
Certain areas of the body are very often related to particular feelings, such as hips and shame or guilt, heart and grief or sadness, abdomen and anger.
Posture also influences the way we feel, and the other way round. Read more about the body-mind connection and how to hack it in this article.
Emotional wellbeing is a result of (self)management
These 4 strategies can help us process rather than suppress our emotions. Using these tools regularly is a crucial foundation of emotional wellbeing.
- Awareness. The awareness of the present moment when emotion comes takes you to acknowledgment and acceptance of feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
- Distraction. In the short term, we can distract ourselves from the thoughts surrounding a situation and emotion by physical exercise, journaling, focusing on an opposite emotion, or chatting with someone who can hold the space and not catastrophize even more.
- Observation. It pays off to train ourselves to become the observer “watching the movie on the screen”, without judging the emotion, or identifying with it.
- Naming. Name the emotion but don’t let a story get attached to it. If an emotion comes from a strong, deeply rooted pattern, it may require professional guidance to gain clarity and be able to release the unprocessed underlying experience.
Emotional wellbeing is a matter of awareness and choice. By understanding how our brain works, we give ourselves the space and grace to manage the response to any event that evoked an emotional response.