Emotions: What, Why and What to Do

By Tiffany Todd, Psychotherapist

Emotions and the human experience

Across the vast tapestry of human experience, emotions and feelings paint vibrant strokes, shaping our choices, relationships, and overall well-being. From the exhilaration of joy to the depths of sorrow, our emotions influence how we perceive and interact with the world around us. They provide color, depth, and texture to our experiences, shaping our memories and influencing the narratives we weave about ourselves. What are emotions and feelings, why do they hold such power over us, and what can we do about it? 

Let’s dive deep into the nature of emotions and feelings, unveiling their fascinating connection to the human brain, the intricate dance they perform with trauma, and the art of emotional self-regulation. Greater understanding of emotions and feelings will improve your life whether you are seeking to understand your own emotional landscape, improve your relationships, or gain insights into the human condition.

The What: Understanding Emotions and Feelings

“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.” – Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

According to the 90-Second Rule, as described by brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”

Emotions can be defined as complex psychological and physiological states that arise in response to stimuli. They are automatic, rapid, and typically short-lived. Emotions are often accompanied by physical sensations, such as changes in heart rate, breathing patterns, and facial expressions. Examples of emotions include joy, fear, anger, sadness, and surprise.

Feelings, on the other hand, are subjective experiences that arise from our emotional responses. They are more conscious and reflective than emotions and involve cognitive processing. Feelings can be influenced by personal beliefs, culture, values, and past experiences. For instance, if you receive a compliment, you may feel happy because you interpret the compliment positively based on your self-esteem and beliefs about yourself. 

Think of it like this, emotions are a reaction to stimuli, but feelings are what we experience because of the emotion, our perception of the situation. 

Emotions and feelings serve important functions in our lives. They provide us with valuable information about ourselves and our environment, helping us navigate and adapt to various situations. For example, feeling fear alerts us to potential threats and triggers a fight-or-flight response, preparing us to either confront the danger or flee from it.

It is worth noting that emotions and feelings are not inherently good or bad. They are natural and normal responses to the world around us. All emotions have their place and purpose, even those that may be perceived as negative, like anger or sadness. Embracing and understanding these emotions allows us to learn from them and make informed decisions.

The Why: The Science Behind Emotions

“Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet. It is the body’s reaction to your mind — or you might say, a reflection of your mind in the body.” – Eckhart Tolle

Emotions are closely intertwined with the brain, and understanding the relationship between the two provides valuable insights into our emotional experiences. The brain’s complex neural networks and various regions work together to generate, process, and regulate emotions. 

Emotions are not purely abstract or subjective experiences. They have a material basis rooted in the complex interplay between our brain, body, and environment. 

Emotions are primarily regulated by the brain, particularly the limbic system or “emotional brain,” which includes structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. The amygdala, in particular, plays a significant role in processing and interpreting emotional stimuli, especially those related to fear and threat. It helps to trigger the fight-or-flight response, preparing our body to react to perceived dangers. 

The hippocampus is involved in memory formation and plays a role in linking emotions to specific memories. It helps us recall emotional experiences and associate them with particular events or stimuli.

The hypothalamus acts as a command center, regulating various physiological responses associated with emotions. It influences the release of hormones and plays a role in controlling bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, which can be influenced by emotional states.

The cingulate gyrus is involved in emotional and cognitive processing, including attention, decision-making, and regulating emotional responses. It helps integrate emotional and cognitive information, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of emotional experiences.

Additionally, the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive functions like decision-making and impulse control, interacts with the limbic system to modulate emotional responses. It helps regulate and manage emotional reactions, allowing for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to emotional situations.

Trauma and the Brain

“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” -Bessel A. van der Kolk

Traumatic experiences can have a significant impact on the brain, leading to emotional dysregulation and other psychological effects. Here are some key points to consider when exploring the relationship between the brain, trauma, and emotions.

A traumatic event activates the brain’s stress response system, which involves the amygdala and other related structures. The amygdala protects us from threats by releasing stress hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline. This physical stress response prepares the body for fight or flight.

Traumatic experiences can also have a profound impact on memory processing. The hippocampus, responsible for memory formation and consolidation, can be adversely affected by trauma. High levels of stress hormones can impair hippocampal function, leading to difficulties in memory encoding and retrieval. As a result, traumatic memories may be fragmented, disorganized, or even repressed, contributing to emotional distress.

The prefrontal cortex, particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, plays a vital role in emotional regulation. However, traumatic experiences can disrupt the functioning of these regions. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which helps modulate emotional responses, may become less active, leading to heightened emotional reactions and difficulty in regulating intense emotions. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, involved in executive functions and cognitive control, may also be impacted, affecting decision-making and impulse control.

Trauma can lead to heightened activity in the amygdala, causing it to become hypersensitive to potential threats. This increased sensitivity can result in exaggerated fear responses, even in situations that are not objectively dangerous. The amygdala’s hyperactivity can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders and heightened emotional reactivity.

Understanding the impact of trauma on the brain and emotions is crucial for individuals who have experienced trauma, as well as for healthcare professionals working in the field of mental health. Trauma-informed approaches focus on providing support and interventions that acknowledge the neurological and emotional effects of trauma, promoting healing, resilience, and emotional well-being.

What to do: The Art of Emotional Self-Regulation

“Self-acceptance does not mean self-admiration or even self-liking at every moment of our lives, but tolerance for all our emotions, including those that make us feel uncomfortable.” -Gabor Mate

The art of emotional self-regulation is the ability to effectively manage and control our emotions in order to respond to situations in a balanced and constructive manner. Here are some key aspects of mastering the art of emotional self-regulation:

  • Bring awareness to your experience. Take a moment to recognize how you feel and notice any shifts in your internal state. By being aware of our emotional state, we will begin to consciously regulate and manage our reactions.
  • Identify the emotion. What was your specific emotional reaction? Name all the emotions you are feeling. Assigning words or labels to our emotions can help us gain better control over them. By verbally acknowledging and labeling our emotions, we can create a psychological distance that enables us to regulate and manage them more effectively.
    There are many great resources to help identify the emotion including the emotion wheel and the emotion face chart. 
  • Validate and give compassion to yourself. Embrace the idea that all emotions are valid and part of being human. Avoid judging or criticizing yourself for feeling a certain way. Instead, offer yourself compassion and understanding. Remember that your emotions provide valuable information about your inner world. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a close friend. Give yourself words of encouragement, understanding, and support. Positive affirmations and somatic exercises can be helpful. 
  • Sit with your emotions, allowing the physical sensations in your body. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness to your body. Your mind might really want to launch into story/thought mode here. Gently redirect your mind down into the sensations in the body and name them. Pay attention to where you feel discomfort or unease. My heart is racing, my chest is tight, my elbow is tingly. Breathe into the feeling and sensation and allow it.
    Remember the 90 second rule and breathe deeply into the feeling. Allowing the feeling and trusting that it will change. Noticing any movement.
  • Express your emotions. Cry, shake, jump, quiet scream (it is just as effective) or scream out loud if it won’t disturb the neighbors. Verbal communication, writing, art, or physical activities are other options. Finding healthy outlets for expressing emotions can contribute to a sense of relief and understanding. How your emotions need to be expressed can vary wildly and is worth exploration. 
  • Explore and investigate nonjudgmentally. This might look like identifying the situations, events, or thoughts that trigger specific emotional responses. Why did you have the emotion? When was another time you felt similarly? Does the physical experience of the emotion feel familiar? What does this event seem to say about you? Think like an investigator with curiosity.
  • Seek help from a professional if needed. It is essential to recognize that emotional self-regulation is not always an individual effort. Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals can provide valuable guidance and assistance in developing effective self-regulation strategies.

Mastering emotional self-regulation is a skill that requires practice and persistence. It is a lifelong journey of self-awareness and growth. By consistently applying self-regulation techniques and reflecting on our emotional experiences, we can continue to refine our ability to manage emotions effectively.

Should you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at InnerVoice Psychotherapy & Consultation in Chicago, IL or Skokie, IL to speak with a therapist.