What Are Emotions?

Emotions are sensations that make us feel a certain way, think a certain way, react a certain way, and act a certain way. They come with a series of components that can be physiological (increased heart rate), expressive (flinching), mental (creating focus), behavioral (causing the urge to flee), phenomenological (sick feeling in the stomach), or evaluative (deciding something’s dangerous). They can be short-lived, such as joy, or drag on like grief. They can arise out of nowhere, as panic does, or exist as a disposition, in the case of hostility. Fear of encountering a bear in the woods begins in your gut, while fear of losing the championship game is a cognitive process. Hate is a conscious emotion, while regret is unconscious. And some emotions provoke reactions, in the case of rage; while others, such as melancholy, are resistant to action.

Though emotional energy can be stored anywhere, including outside the physical body, sensations, such as surprise, originate in the body, generally the belly. They are basic human responses to a pleasure or pain stimulus. However, our reaction to any stimulus can produce thoughts that trigger a secondary emotional response because these sensations are translated through the nervous system to the brain, where some cognitive meaning is associated to them. A sibling leaping at you from around a corner wearing a goaltender mask sends the sensation of terror from your gut to your mind, which can then be experienced in the body as a shrill scream (or your sibling might experience it as a punch to the nose as my brother did). 

But sensations can also illicit a cognitive reaction that can be specific to your natural state of being. An example would be taking a sip of scalding hot tea. “Shit, that’s hot!”  is a common reaction to the pain stimulus. But then some of us let our thoughts and emotions run wild after that with phrases like “I’m such a dumbass,” or “Crap…I hate my life.” 

Or consider the reaction to a different type of sensation: “That idiot just cut me off! The universe is so against me today. Crap…I hate my life.” The jarring effect of being cut off in traffic led to thoughts that then were experienced as emotions—the exact emotion as the scalding hot tea example. Think about that. 

Sensations that lead to thoughts that are then experienced as emotions happen so fast, they almost co-arise and work together. This is possible because the mind has both a cognitive and emotional capacity. Therefore, emotions are not just sent to the brain from the body (“Shit, that’s hot!”), but also conceived from thought (“Crap…I hate my life.”), which we then experience back in the body (as self-pity, discouragement, anger, frustration, or hopelessness). 

Here’s another great example: You spot an old friend. As you close the gap, you recognize the person with him. Oh, look, it’s my ex! Your initial reaction is shock, which shoots up from your gut to your mind. But then, you think about it. Your ex looks great. Plus, you’ve always respected this friend. Does your friend see something in your ex that you missed? Suddenly, you’re jealous. Is it hot in here? That secondary emotion was borne from thought. Now you’re mad at both these individuals, even though you dumped your ex, you’re in a new relationship, and you’re wildly in love. Shock originated in your gut, but the jealousy and anger was all you, coming from the subsequent thoughts you allowed yourself to experience in your body. 

Whether they originate in the gut or in the mind, we experience emotions all the time. The difference is our conscious mind has control over the latter–the emotions that originate from thought. This thought-driven emotional process is what creates our natural state of being, our personality, and our experiences, which turn into our memories. Once we become aware of this body-mind connection, we can then identify the emotions we’ve cognized and start to manage them. This week I encourage you to start to notice what emotions income out as a reaction before you have had time to manage them and take action!

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