Emotions are an essential part of who we are. They are a normal part of everyday life and they form part of what make us human. However, they can be messy, complicated, and very confusing at times.
We can feel frustrated when we’re stuck in traffic.
We feel sad when we miss our loved ones.
We can get angry when someone lets us down or does something to hurt us.
We can feel happiness or joy at the receipt of recognition or an award.
So, what are emotions exactly?
Emotions are, quite simply, how our body and our brain make sense (or how we interpret) what is going on in the world or the space around us.
They are reactions that are produced in our physical bodies as a response to what's happening in our environment.
Emotions are, quite simply, how we make sense (or how we interpret) what is going on in the world or the space around us.
I like to think of emotions as messengers to our autonomic nervous system (ANS) and brain that serve to either protect us from danger OR alert us to opportunities. They signal threats or rewards to our brain. They can be both energizing and de-energizing; Emotions are "guesses" that our brain constructs in the moment trying to predict what will happen next and because our brain is wired to keep us alive and safe, emotions have a big part to play in the subsequent actions and behaviour that follow.
Much like a compass, emotions have the power to guide us to the right actions and behaviour.
What a lot of people don't know about emotions, and what is unfolding in the world of neuroscience research, is that emotions are not hard-wired into our bodies and brains at birth. Rather, they are created within us as a reaction or response to our circumstances and to what is going on in our environment.
And here is the best news. Because our emotions are not hard-wired, we have the choice and opportunity to change our experience if we want to as well as our subsequent our action and behaviour.
Different Types of Emotions
Emotions – at their most basic level – are widely recognised across people and cultures.
One widely accepted theory of emotion, developed by Robert Pluchik, suggests that there are 8 Basic Emotions.
Sadness / Happiness / Fear / Anticipation / Anger / Surprise / Trust / Disgust
Complex Emotions are made up of two or more of the basic emotions making them harder to recognise. These also require much more cognitive processing.
Examples of complex emotions may be:
Hate - considered a fusion of anger, fear, and disgust,
Love - blends tenderness, pleasure, devotion, and passion.
What is important and necessary to appreciate about our emotions is that they offer wisdom and intelligence. Our emotions ALWAYS give us information and feedback. They let us know where we have a need that is either being met or not met. There is always a reason for our emotions.
Our emotions ALWAYS give us information and feedback. They are part of our whole-body intelligence. They let us know where we have a need that is either being met or not met.
How do they come about?
Our emotions are in play all the time - sometimes consciously, sometimes very unconsciously.
They can be derived based on interactions in relationships with friends, families or strangers.
They can be internally created as a result of mental time-traveling e.g., thinking about something that has not yet happened in the future which can cause anxiety.
Emotions may be triggered by current circumstances reminding us of something that happened in the past. Because our brain is a predicting machine, it will look for similarities in our memory bank to predict what the next action should be. In these situations, we experience the past as if it were happening in the present moment. E.g. Someone raises their voice in a meeting. This reminds you of a time when an authoritative figure raised their voice and made you feel uncomfortable – triggering an emotional reaction based on past experience; equally other sounds, smells, sensations experienced in the present day may trigger past memories and old patterns of behaviour.
Emotions can also arise due to physical changes in a person e.g., exhaustion, tiredness, hunger, drop in blood sugar and hormonal changes experienced throughout the course of life.
It’s also important to also appreciate that the human (and animal) physiology is subject to season, lunar and circadian rhythms – paying attention to emotions during times of change may also bring some newly informed awareness.
Why it is important to recognise, understand and regulate (or master) emotions
Emotions come and go and may be triggered by different stimuli in our environment. Given the role our emotions play in helping us to make sense of what’s going on around us and the subsequent actions we take, it is important that we recognise them, understand what they are trying to tell us and regulate (or master) them.
We cannot not have emotions!
Emotions can influence our decisions making, the choices we make and our behaviour. Recognising and identifying our emotions can help us better understand why we behave in certain ways.
Without recognising our emotions, we may do things and not know why we do them. This can leave us feeling out of control, repeating old patterns that keep us stuck and frustrated.
In recognising and identifying our emotions, we learn how to change our reaction and subsequent behaviour for better outcomes.
Managing and regulating our emotions is hugely important part our overall health and wellbeing, helping to stay balanced and grounded when it feels like a tornado may be whirling around us.
This can be hard to do if:
You are not used to doing this.
You have a belief or have been told by society at large (e.g., authoritarian figures, teachers) to not show emotion or that showing your emotion is weak.
The good news is that we can all learn to recognise & regulate our emotions. We can even learn to master them. What we cannot do is make them disappear or go away!
However, just like many other things in life, this is a learned habit.
The skill is to create space between the emotions arising and the subsequent actions and behaviour taken based on how you feel.
Managing our emotions is sometimes referred to as emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to effectively exert control over our emotions – whether they be positive or negative emotions.
The key to emotional regulation is in paying attention (or staying mindful) to how you feel, what you are thinking, and listening to what your emotions are communicating through your body.
Emotional regulation involves three things:
initiating actions triggered by emotions
inhibiting actions triggered by emotions
modulating / regulating our response triggered by emotions.
Some people appear better than others at regulating their emotions. They are aware of their internal experiences and what’s going on around them. It appears "naturally calm," in many circumstances. The truth is though, because they are human, they also experience negative feelings and emotions. However, they have developed strategies and become more resourceful in self-regulating through more challenging emotional experiences.
When we effectively recognise, manage and regulate our emotions, we give ourselves a better chance of being clearer in our decision making, make better and more informed choices, and take action that is aligned with what's important to us (our values).
Without tools and skills to effectively manage or regulate our emotions, we may automatically and very unconsciously fall back on old coping mechanisms that served us a children. As adults, however, these coping mechanisms may evolve to look like any of the following: avoidance/procrastination; angry outbursts; silence; people-pleasing; self-criticism; unhealthy competitiveness; over/under eating; co-dependency; self-harm; excessive drug or alcohol use to name a few.
Equally, a situation in our environment that is perceived as stressful or frightening could also trigger the fight / flight response. The fight or flight response is an automatic and very normal physiological reaction to stress or fear. The perception of a threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. Having the ability to know or recognise when you are in the fight / flight response can mean you can employ regulating strategies to take you back to a more regulated physical and emotional state.
Note: the fight / flight response can also help with peak performance e.g., preparing an athlete ready at the beginning of a race when adrenalin is pumping; an actor backstage getting ready for a performance.
Emotional regulation is in essence a way to tell your autonomic nervous system and your brain that you are safe and to feel more in control of your actions and behaviour.
Emotional Suppression (or numbing)
Negative emotions are part of our daily lives and pretending that they don’t exist won’t make them go away.
Many of us tend to move away from negative emotions and try and suppress them or find ways to numb them.
They can feel very uncomfortable.
We may not recognise them as emotions.
We may fear that if we don't suppress them, we may have an emotional outburst or respond in a way that is not socially acceptable.
Emotional suppression or numbing is typically a coping strategy that we have learned from a very young age (e.g. stiff upper lip, “sucking it up”, staying silent). Whilst it might decrease outward expressions of emotion, rarely does it decrease the inner emotional experience.
However, it’s very difficult to suppress an emotion. It either doesn’t work (if so, we are lulled into a false sense of security) or it makes it worse.
E-motions, sometimes also referenced as Energy-in-Motion, are experienced in the body as a felt experiences. They come and go. They need to be processed, they need to move. Without processing, moving them through your body and regulating them, they can get ‘trapped’ in our bodies causing more harm further down the road.
Here’s why it can be unhealthy to suppress our emotions:
It takes a lot of mental, emotional and physical energy and can reduce memory of events significantly.
Emotional suppression dysregulates our nervous system and can trigger the fight / flight response. Over a longer period, it can also contribute to extreme exhaustion, burnout and lead to a freeze response (shut down of the nervous system).
It impacts our decision making and cognitive thought processing.
It endangers your health and wellbeing physically and psychologically.
It can make other people feel uncomfortable
Whilst in the short-term, emotional suppression may feel like the best way to avoid ongoing emotional suffering or negative emotions, the long term negative impacts of emotional suppression are now well documented and can result in depression, anxiety and other stress-related illnesses or addiction which may require additional professional therapeutic support**
My own personal experience has re-affirmed for me that emotions are better out than in. Have you ever noticed how much better you feel better after a good cry?
A personal favourite mantra of mine is: "Tears are pain leaving the body".
9 Tips for Managing Emotions & Tools for Emotional Regulation:
Much has been written on ways to manage or regulate our emotions. There are MANY.
Here are some of my favourite tips and regulating resources that I use myself and I share with my clients who are also exploring their emotions.
1. NAME IT TO TAME IT
People incorrectly predict that labelling an emotion will make them feel worse. Name it! Labeling an emotion can reduce the arousal that our brain experiences and can help diffuse the emotion and prevent triggering or reduce the fight / flight response. TIP: make it symbolic – not a long dialogue to calm the brain and nervous system e.g. I feel angry; I feel hurt; I feel relieve; I feel joy.
2. REAPPRAISE OR REFRAME A SITUATION
Because our brain is in the business of interpreting what happens often as hard facts or the 'truth', cognitive reappraisal or reframing can be helpful to diffuse or change our emotional response.
This is not always easy but can be very beneficial to reappraise in a number of different ways:
a) reinterpreting an event e.g. you see a guy stomping his feet and you think he's angry then you see him smile; b) normalizing an event e.g. meeting new people for the first time and becoming familiar with emotions that arise in those moments; c) reorder the importance of events as they unfold; d) re-position or find a new perspective on a situation. Put yourself in someone else's shoes.
3. PRACTICING NOTICING YOUR EMOTION IN YOUR BODY
Practice noticing emotions in your body to get better at sensing their presence earlier. This takes time but as you become more aware of them, label them and notice where in your body you may experience more sensation e.g. tightness; lightness; space; warmth; tingling etc. This heightened awareness will help you build greater self-awareness as well as help you interpret what that the emotion is telling you. IMPORTANT: The emotion will ALWAYS make sense (even if you don't know why at the time). It will also help you to identify what is the next right action for you to take.
4. USE ‘HALT’
Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? All these states /moods can be a trigger for our emotions. I use this a LOT! Recognising these can you help you take the next best right action.
5. PAUSE BEFORE YOU POUNCE
I love this one. It’s one I’m getting better at but am yet to master 😊. Once we get better at recognising the emotion and naming it, we can create more space between the emotion arising and our subsequent behaviour / taking action e.g. pausing before you answer back in anger, saving an email to draft before sending!
6. SHARE IT
Not so easy for many of us to do but this helps in so many ways. Sharing it (like naming it!) can help to diffuse it and let it pass through your body to avoid suppressing it or prevent it from getting trapped in our bodies.
7. FOCUS ON THE PRESENT MOMENT
Focus on what's in front of you right now. Focus on what you can control in terms of your thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour.
We cannot undo the past (so we shouldn't spend precious energy ruminating on the past)
Avoid worrying about the future (much of which may be out of your control anyway)
8. REGULATING RESOURCES AND TECHNIQUES
These help us send signals to our brain and body that we are safe. Below is not an exhaustive list but may serve as a reminder of things you enjoy, what is accessible or what may be worthwhile trying;
All of the above (listed 1-6)
Exercise (that serves your body)
Being in nature
Breathing exercises / meditation
Connecting / sharing with friends;
Walking away from a situation
Sleeping / taking naps
Have a good cry
9. SEEKING ADDITIONAL THERAPEUTIC SUPPORT
Managing our own emotions can be difficult. It requires a high degree of self-awareness. When experiencing challenges and in the case of deeper and sustained periods of emotional dysregulation including diagnosed trauma**, it is wise to engage with the help of a professional therapist who can provide additional guidance and support.
In summary, our emotions are an important and essential part of us.
They make sense (even if we don't realise it at the time).
They are part of our whole-body intelligence.
They are what makes us human.
Suppressing or numbing them can impact negatively on our physical AND emotional health and wellbeing.
Recognising, identifying and understanding our emotions allows us to become aware of emotional triggers enabling us to gain insights on how to respond in more constructive and better ways.
Emotional regulation helps us make better decisions, helps us stay healthy and helps us to create better relationships with ourselves and others.
Regulating resources tell your nervous system that you are safe; over time, regulating resources may replace unhealthier copying strategies (see blog on healthy / unhealthy coping strategies) that help you to change your experience rather than mask your experience.
Awareness, understanding and experiencing our emotions helps us fully participate in a rich, rewarding and fulfilling life giving us the benefit of a full human experience.
Finally, remember, emotions are messengers communicating with you, they are not your masters controlling you!
If you enjoyed this blog, please leave a comment or get in touch to find out more.
**Coaching is a comprehensive process that may involve different areas of your life, including work, finances, health, relationships, education and recreation. It involves a creative process that is focused on moving clients forward. Deciding how to handle these issues and how to incorporate coaching principles into those areas is exclusively your choice. No results are guaranteed, and any actions you take and any resulting consequences are solely your responsibility. Coaching is not therapy. Monica Browning is a trauma-informed coach, however, she is not a doctor or medical practitioner and life coaching is not meant to be a substitute for psychological counseling, therapy, or medical advice. You are encouraged to consult with your healthcare provider or other professional care providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding any health condition or any other condition that you may have before taking any action or engaging in any activity or program, including coaching