We know there are different emotions – we have experienced them! We group them in “good” and “bad” but the truth is, there is more happening behind the scenes.
Words like anxiety, happiness, anger, pain, etc, are really familiar to us. The truth is, those are more than just words we can use to describe how and what we feel. They refer to different things happening in our bodies, changing not only our “mood”, but our brain chemistry and hormones.
Emotions are pure biology: they are automatic responses from our body, when we face certain things or experiences. There are theories that say there are 11 basic emotions, others say there are five basic emotions, and so on. Far from deciding which theory is right, we can agree on and identify:
But... what is an "emotion"?
They are processes that unfold over time: we start feeling something, the feeling grows, it reaches a peak and starts descending in its intensity. This whole process can last from seconds to minutes.
How does “emotion” happen?
In simple terms we could say - in this order:
- trigger (event, person, object, memory, etc)
- human perception, through one or more senses: smells, sounds, textures, flavours, etc
- brain responds: hormones start moving, preparing the body for action
- behaviour/action: heartbeat, breathing pattern, blood flow... everything changes!
So, it is safe to say there are different triggers and they cause different emotional states and these will differ from person to person. For example, seeing a beautiful red rose will trigger happiness in Mary - her heart will increase its rhythm, her body will be filled with “happy” hormones in seconds, her breathing will be nice and relaxed, bringing in more oxygen and making her whole body work better - while the same beautiful red rose will trigger sadness in Joanne, and anger in Paula.
The reaction will therefore depend on different factors and an important one, is a past experience with the same or similar trigger. Even then, it is hard to predict what we are going to feel when we experience something specific.
What is the difference between emotions and mood?
- emotions are about something - there is a trigger. Moods don’t have an event causing them
- emotions unfold in a relatively short period of time. Moods persist over longer periods, lasting from days to weeks
- we feel one emotion per trigger. Moods can be a compound of one or more states that happen simultaneously.
Why do we need them?
When we talk about unpleasant emotions - such as sadness - we may think “why do I have to feel this way?”.
Emotions have a purpose that, at least physiologically, are mostly related to survival of human beings in the past. For example, fear tells us to protect ourselves, and prepares our bodies for immediate action. Sadness tells us to find support, connect with others and puts us in an “energy saving” mode, etc.
Ok, so we “feel” … how can we use it in a healthy way?
For example, when we lose a loved one we are probably going to feel a wave of different things at the same time - sadness, fear, guilt. Or if we are experiencing a particularly stressful period at work: we fear we might lose our job and are angry or sad as well. In both situations, maybe one of these emotions will be more dominant on some days and will change the next day, like what we have already described as “mood”.
Depending on how much it interferes with our daily life, how difficult we find it to cope with the experience or how uncomfortable the feelings are, we might need to ask for help or find someone to talk to. This is a “good decision” we could make. Connecting with others and finding support is one of the healthiest things humans do, when facing tough times.
Learning the language of our own emotions will help us to make decisions when difficult things happen. Teaching our children to identify and express their emotions will not only help them now but will also build their resilience when faced with challenges in the future. They will be skilled in identifying what they feel, and expressing it in a healthy way and connecting with others when they need to. Skylight has a range of publications that will help you and your family to start navigating through the sea of emotions.