Emotions 101: Why We Have Emotions and What to Do With Them

Emotions are an intricate part of the human experience, influencing our thoughts, actions, and overall well-being. Far from being mere fleeting sensations, emotions are powerful messengers that convey valuable information about our inner world and external circumstances. In this blog post, we delve into the fascinating realm of emotions, exploring their essence as messages and providing practical steps for effectively responding to them. By developing a deeper understanding of our emotions, we can foster greater self-awareness and nurture our emotional well-being.

What are Emotions?

Imagine a scenario where you are attending a farewell party for a close friend who is moving to another country. As you gather with friends and loved ones, memories of the time you have spent together flood your mind. The atmosphere is filled with a mixture of joy and sadness, knowing that this will be the last time you will all be together in the same way. As you engage in heartfelt conversations and share laughter and tears, a sense of nostalgia and deep connection envelops you. The bittersweet realization that this chapter of your lives is coming to an end stirs a whirlwind of emotions within you—happiness for your friend’s new adventure, sadness for the impending separation, and gratitude for the cherished moments you have shared. In this emotional moment, you feel a surge of love, appreciation, and vulnerability, as you embrace the depth of your relationships and the transient nature of life.

Think about how your body would feel in the scenario above. Maybe you would feel a tightness in your chest or a lump in your throat. The thoughts coming to your mind might include memories of the person and how much you will miss your friend. In this situation, you might have the urge to cry or hug someone. Sadness, gratitude, and vulnerability might be all of the feelings swirling around that best describe how you would be feeling.

Emotions are a combination of sensations, thoughts, urges, and feelings that come in reaction to what is going on around us and inside of us.

Emotions as Messages:

Many of my clients ask me why they have emotions at all. When emotions are big and overwhelming, and especially when they are causing us to act in ways that diverge from our goals, it can be easy to wish we didn’t have any.

Emotions have three purposes:

  1. They are like messages that our body and mind send us to tell us how we are feeling inside. Just like when you get a text message on your phone, your emotions send messages to you too. They serve as valuable messages, providing insights into our needs, desires, and reactions to the world around us. They act as an inner guidance system, alerting us to pay attention and respond accordingly. When you feel a big emotion, see if you can tune in to what is important in that situation.
  2. Emotions can be messages to other people. Imagine you arrived at a social event and saw a friend off in the corner of the room crying. While you are not the person who is crying, you see the evidence of your friend’s sadness and it impacts you. This emotion is sending the message to you that your friend may need your help or support in some way. Emotions can draw people in or push them away depending on what messages we are trying to send.
  3. If you have ever waited until the last minute to do something and then suddenly been more productive in the last 24 hours than you were in the last 24 days, you have experienced how emotions can serve as motivators. In this example, stress is a motivator, and it activates you to take action. Using emotions to motivate is one way to override the I’ll Do It Later Glitch.

We all have emotions. Understanding the messages behind our emotions can lead to enhanced self-awareness, personal growth, and improved relationships.

How to Respond to Emotions:

Recognize and Label Emotions:

The first step in effectively responding to emotions is to recognize and label them accurately. Pay attention to the bodily sensations, thoughts, and behaviors associated with each emotion. Certain people are better at naming the emotions first and then tune in to how their body is feeling. Others find it easier to tune into the tension in their shoulders and an aching jaw and use those clues to recognize they’re feeling stressed. There is no best way to start – just do whatever makes the most sense to you.

If you need help finding the right word to describe a feeling, check out the feelings wheel.

Naming your emotions helps create distance and objectivity, enabling you to gain a clearer understanding of what you are experiencing. Rather than being in the middle of the emotion, naming the emotion allows you to put it on a stage so you can be in the audience as an observer.

Accept and Validate Emotions:

Emotions are neither good nor bad; they simply are. Practice self-acceptance and validate your emotions without judgment. Understand that all emotions serve a purpose and have their rightful place in your human experience.

You are allowed to feel angry, hurt, sad, embarrassed, confused, terrified, elated, proud, or any number of other emotions. Bottling up emotions for days, weeks, and years can be detrimental to a person’s aspirations, relationships, and personal growth.

Remember, emotions are not dangerous. By accepting your emotions, you create a safe space for exploration and growth.

Investigate the Message:

Once you’ve acknowledged your emotions, take a moment to explore the underlying message they convey. Reflect on the situation or trigger that prompted the emotional response. Ask yourself what the emotion is trying to communicate and what needs or values may be at play.

For example, if you feel scared, your body might be telling you that there is something dangerous or threatening nearby, and it’s important to be cautious. If you feel happy, it could mean that you are enjoying something or someone, and it’s a good feeling to have. Anger might be a message that someone has treated you unfairly, and it’s important to stand up for yourself. Sadness might mean that you’ve experienced loss or something is not going well, and it’s okay to ask for help or take time to feel better. Emotions are like messengers, helping us understand what we need or what is happening around us. This introspection helps you gain valuable insights and make informed choices.

Choose Your Response:

Armed with a deeper understanding of the message behind your emotions, you can now choose a thoughtful response. Consider different options and evaluate their potential outcomes. In DBT, we talk about getting in touch with your wise mind.

Wise mind is a concept rooted in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that represents a balanced and optimal state of mind, encompassing both emotional and rational elements. It is a state in which an individual integrates their emotional intuition and logical reasoning, enabling them to make wise and effective decisions. Wise mind involves acknowledging and validating our emotions while also considering the facts and evidence at hand. It allows for a comprehensive understanding of situations, fostering wise choices and mindful actions that align with our values and long-term well-being. In wise mind, we find a harmonious synergy between the heart and the mind, leading to increased self-awareness, resilience, and interpersonal effectiveness.

What I love about the concept of wise mind is that it reminds us that we don’t have to let emotional mind (or rational mind) be in the driver’s seat. Imagine you are driving a bus and the passengers are your thoughts and feelings. They can yell and tell you to turn right or left all they want but ultimately, you remain in the driver’s seat. You get to choose what to do.

Choosing your response reminds us that we have the power to make conscious decisions rather than reacting impulsively. You are in the driver’s seat.

Practice Emotional Regulation Techniques:

Far from popular belief emotion regulation or emotional control does not mean that we don’t have any emotions. Emotion regulation means that the size of our reaction fits the size of the problem, and the reaction is in line with our values and goals. If someone breaks my pencil and I yell at them and throw things off the desk, the intensity of my reaction does not fit the situation. Alternatively, if my best friend passed away and I have absolutely no reaction, that does not fit either. As a CBT trained therapist, I am often curious what thoughts might be contributing to a person’s feelings and behaviors. How you interpret a situation (aka think about it) can be like lighter fluid to a fire of intense emotion.

Managing intense emotions is essential for maintaining emotional well-being. Explore various techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, journaling, physical exercise, or seeking support from trusted individuals. Engaging in activities that promote relaxation and self-care can help regulate emotions and restore a sense of balance. Here are a few resources I have used and have found helpful: Coping for Kids, Coping for Teens, and The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (for adults but this can be helpful for older teens, too!).

Conclusion:

Emotions are profound messengers that guide us through life’s ups and downs. By learning to recognize, understand, and respond to our emotions, we cultivate self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Remember, emotions are not obstacles to overcome but invaluable tools for personal growth and authentic self-expression. Embrace your emotions, listen to their messages, and embark on a transformative journey towards enhanced emotional well-being and a more fulfilling life.