What is an Emotion?

what is an emotionIs 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.

2 Replies to “What is an Emotion?”

  1. Q: What do you think an emotion is?
    A: A process:

    I. What it is prompted by:

    1. (Beginnins with a) Stimulus from outside our system;
    2. (An ideally) Intellectual Judgement, where labeling and naming it helps structuring our thoughts for similar encounters in the future;

    II. What it is in the strict(er) sense:

    3. An urge to do something to better one’s situation;
    4. A motivational impulse (send by us into the external world), for example (in personal encounters) via facial expressions, and other forms of “body language”.

    It’s all of the above (and probably more on the micro level): in the right order.

  2. It’s a pity human lives are as short as they are; there are so many inventions and discoveries that we’ll miss out on. I believe the brain and it’s workings will be so well understood that emotions will in future be studied from a minimalist point of view, with neurotransmitters as the subjects of study. Emotion, I presume, might even be defined by blood concentration of neurotransmitters (just as MRIs can currently show which parts of the brain are active during different emotional states), and cognitive function and ability mapped out by remote sensors of the days to come.

    Until then, I’ll walk around half-insane with so much pressure repeating positive mantras to myself trying to pass off as “normal.”

    I believe science will heal our broken hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *