Is an emotion the name that you give it-- Love, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, despair, happiness, joy?
These are just a few of hundreds of emotions that have names in the English language. There are probably 8 or so primary or basic emotions—think of those emotions that we seem to be born with like fear, sadness, and joy. Others are learned and are some combination of basic emotions. Disgust might be a combination of shame and anger or optimism a combination of anticipation and joy.
In DBT we learn that emotions are patterned reactions to events. They are complex and come and go like waves in the sea. Emotions are triggered by events, influenced by our thoughts, comprised of both changes in our bodies (say increases in blood pressure or sweat) and changes in our brains (the release of neurotransmitters). We express our emotions in our body language, verbal communication, and actions.
It is all of the components in this complex process that we might label as love or anger or disappointment. An emotion can be brief—a fleeting pleasure in a warm breeze—or can last a long time—unrelenting grief. Our thoughts play an instrumental role in how long we experience an emotion. Ruminating on each time your partner forgot an important event or failed to do a household chore will keep you feeling angry and irritated.
But does that flutter in your stomach and shaking hand feel like exhilaration, anticipation, nervousness or apprehension? And why does it matter what you call your emotions? Does it make a difference if you say “I want a vacation” rather than “I’m anxious and defeated?
Emotions play an important role in social communication. The ability to perceive the emotions of those around us enables us to change our own actions and interactions.
Naming your own internal emotional process can reduce the intensity of your emotions. Often feelings of anger, sadness, shame or fear are overwhelming and disconcerting. Whether labeling it gives you some distance or provides organization, putting a verbal label on your emotions seems to decrease their intensity.
So what is an emotion? A name? A verbal label? A process? An urge to act? A facial expression? What do you think an emotion is? And does the ability to name and label an emotion matter?
Photo by Alan Bruce, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.