We all feel emotions, more or less intensely, so we all know what they are concretely. But do you know how they are built? Why in some situations you will feel anger while in others you will feel sadness? That’s what we’ll see here!

The theme of emotions is complex and vast. Unfortunately, we can’t condense everything in one article, otherwise it will be very long. That’s why this is the first in a series of articles on emotions. There will be one episode of this series per month. They will allow you to know what our emotions are for and how to regulate them. But to learn how to regulate our emotions, we must first understand what they are and how they work. After a short parenthesis, let’s get to the heart of the matter!

What is an emotion?

There are many different emotions! There are the primary emotions such as joy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. These are the easiest emotions to recognize, because they are universal! That is to say, without even knowing a person or talking to him or her, and without being from the same culture as him or her, you will be able to see if he or she is feeling joy (by his or her smile) or if he or she is feeling anger (by his or her frown or his or her attitude) for example. But there are also more complex emotions like shame, pride, shyness, stupor… which are more complex and less easily recognizable.

So what is an emotion? An emotion is a temporary psychological and physical reaction, of varying intensity, in response to the perception that we have of a particular situation. It is based on 3 components: subjective experience, communicative expression, and physiological modification. We will see together the elements to understand and retain from this definition, which, at first glance, seems complicated.

  • Our emotions depend on the way we perceive a situation, not on the situation itself. For example, if we take the case of your brother/sister/best friend who is going to study abroad: one person could be sad to not see him/her as often as before, another person could be angry because he/she feels abandoned, another could feel joy or pride to know that the person who is leaving is going to succeed in what he/she is doing, and others could feel all these emotions at the same time! It all depends on how YOU see the situation! So it’s not the situation itself that causes your emotion, but how you perceive that situation.

  • An emotion will cause bodily sensations (physical reactions), thoughts and behaviors (psychological reactions). Let’s take another example, you are having an argument with a friend, which makes you angry. You may feel tension in your muscles or feel hotter, these are body sensations caused by anger. You may think, “Why did he do that to me? He’s a bad friend” or whatever, these are the thoughts caused by anger. And then you’re going to act, it’s your behavior that’s influenced by the anger; for example you’re going to say things that you don’t mean, or decide not to talk to your friend etc. Well, this is normal! Emotion often takes control of our actions. That’s actually the purpose of an emotion, to make us act!

  • An emotion is based on what we feel inside, what we feel in our body, and what we show. The emotion has 3 components:
  1. The subjective experience which is what we feel inside. If we take the example of sadness, we will feel sorrow.
  2. The communicative expression which corresponds to what we show to others. When we are sad, we will have wet eyes, tears that flow, we will cry more or less loudly. We will then show others that we are sad.
  3. Physiological changes that correspond to what we feel in our body. Let’s take the example of sadness, we will have a feeling of tightness in the throat, perhaps a ball in the stomach etc.
  • An emotion is temporary. Has anyone ever told you never to make an important decision when you are angry, sad or happy? Well, that’s very good advice! Because an emotion is temporary, which is what distinguishes it from feelings, which are long lasting (like love). And since emotion is temporary, if you make an important decision while being under the control of your emotion, when the emotion goes away, you may regret your decision!

To summarize

An emotion is temporary, acts on our behaviors, our body, our thoughts, according to the perception that we have of a situation. We cannot choose which emotion we want to feel. Also, we do not have the privilege to have the choice to feel such or such emotion because emotions are there to help us to adapt, to communicate and sometimes even to motivate us. To understand what our emotions are used for, see you next month for the second article of this series!