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Emotions

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Emotions:

Humanity's Most Effective Survival Tool

​Emotions provide us with the energy to make decisions. They act as an automatic communication system. Without them, we would struggle to survive.

 

Defining emotion

I must first acknowledge:​ There are countless definitions and understandings of what Emotions are exactly. I'm going to share with you what resonates with me.

Emotions, where they come from, their purpose, and their mechanics have been debated for centures. It's one of humanity's greatest grey areas. A part of that is because every single one of us experiences emotions in a different way.  Which makes sense because by defintion,

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Emotion is a subjective (personal), automatic mind & body response to a stimulus of some kind.

Simply put, Emotion is a set of reactions we unconsciously experience when something happens to or around us. Unconsciously, or 'automatically,' means it happens without us having to think about.

An emotional experience has 4 components (parts):

  • Stimulus - something happens,

  • Physiological response - your body reacts,

  • Expressive behavior - you outwardly do something,

  • Cognitive experience - you make meaning of the situation

And 4 main functions (purposes):

  • To motivate behavior needed to solve problems

  • To communicate to yourself "something is happening"

  • To help you make decisions based on a personal value system

  • To communicate to others

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So why all the fuss?? Why does it feel like emotions are this insurmountable, messy, unapproachable topic?

Well, when was the first time you were taught the above information?...Right. This is not common knowledge, despite the fact we all experience emotions from in the womb til death.

Secondly, a lot of our attitudes toward Emotions are culturally-influenced. We live in a society that uses shame and suppression to deal with human needs, desires, and emotions.

Before all that though, let's use an example to apply our new knowledge.

breaking down an emotional experience

Imagine you are walking home at night in an unfamiliar part of town. 

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You just saw a scary movie with some friends. The block you are on is dark and quiet. You hear a scraping sound behind you. Your back straightens as you perk your ears up. You hear the sound again. Oh nah. Your heart starts pounding. You feel your breathing become shallow, coming out of your nose hot and fast. You start walking faster, leaning your body forward, trying to get away from the sound. What is that?? The final scene of the movie you just watched flashes in your mind. You start to feel panic. You start to run, waving your arms, yelling,"Help! I'm being followed!' You sprint all the way to your car, slam & lock the door, and sit there shaking, out of breath, totally freaked out. You place your hand on your heart. You take a deep breath in to steady yourself and eventually, feel your heart rate return to its usual pace.

This whole experience from the moment you hear the sound until you get into the car and calm down is considered an emotional experience.

Let's break this down by each component.

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Stimulus: You hear a sound behind you while walking home alone after watching a scary movie

Physiological response: Your heart rate quickens, Your listening heightens, Your breathing changes

Expressive behavior: Your back straightens, You begin to walk quickly, You run, You wave your arms, You yell for help

Cognitive experienceYou feel fear & panic, You remember the movie, You believe you're in danger

Why did this happen?

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Let's review the 4 functions of emotions.

 

To motivate behavior  needed to solve problems

Because you were in the experience of fear,

your body prepared you for fight-or-flight.

To communicate to yourself

The change in your heart rate and breathing alerted you that "something is happening."

You started to pay more attention to your environment. 

To help you make decisions  based on a personal value system

You decided to run away from the perceived danger to protect yourself.

You also decided to alert the neighborhood by yelling to help you stay safe.

To communicate to others 

Waving your arms and yelling for help conveyed that you were afraid and in need of support.

How do you think you would have responded in this scenario?

 

This feels like a great time to diccuss the difference between Emotions and Feelings.

Emotions Vs. Feelings

Emotions are often confused with feelings (and moods), but these terms are not interchangeable.

Reminder:

Emotion is a subjective (personal), automatic & body response to a stimulus of some kind.

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Emotions are our bodies' internal and external reactions to the environment around us.

They tell us to pay closer attention to what's happening, help us to make decisions, and can convey urgency to others. An emotional experience can be broken down into 4 parts: something happens, your body responds, you do something, and you think something.

This is where Feelings come in.

Feelings are the conscious (mental) perception of emotional reactions, acquired through personal experience.

Feelings are the mental associations and other reactions we have in response to an emotion. Feelings are sparked and shaped by personal experiences, beliefs, memories, thoughts, and judgements linked to past experiences of that particular emotion. It is the brain assigning a meaning to our emotional experience.

 

Simply put, Feelings are what we think and feel about the emotional reactions that are happening in our body.

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For exmaple

 

And now we come upon what all the fuss IS about emotions.

First and foremost, emotions affect each and every single one of us differently.

No two people have the same exact internal & external emotional response to anything. What generates fear in some, may be thrilling for others.

Secondly, just because we may be able to easily understand the mechanics and general functions of Emotions, we actually still have no clue where they come from

For instance, in our above example:

Was it the sound behind you that triggered your body to begin preparing for fight-or-flight, which your brain then registered as 'frightening'?

...Or was it the thought you had in response to the sound that created the experience of fear, which then triggered your body's fight-or-flight response?

Which beckons the question,

Do our thoughts create our emotions? Or do our emotions create our thoughts?

Allow me to present you with a diagram to consider.

Cognition & EMotion

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This is known as the "Cognitive Triangle."

It depicts the way our thoughts, emotions, and behavior cyclically influence each other.

 

As stated in the graphic to the left:

Our thoughts affect how we act and feel,

our emotions affect how we think and act, and our behavior affects how we think and feel.

Let's take a deeper look at this. Thinking the thought "I must be stupid. I'm definitely going to fail this exam" creates feelings of sadness, frustration, and stress; and so to deal with those emotions, you choose to not to study and hang out with your friends instead. This behavior leads you to fail the exam and reinforces the original thought, "I must be stupid. I just failed this exam." 

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And it works similiarly when we start with Emotions. Say it's finals week and we are feeling sad, frustrated, and stressed out. We decide not to study and instead hang out with our friends to relieve our painful feelings. When we fail the test, we think to ourselves "I must be stupid. I'm definitely going to fail this class," which causes us to feel sad, frustrated, stressed. 
 

These things aren't linear of course. We may choose to avoid studying, hang out with frineds

 

You might ask, why not just change the behavior??

 

If the thinking poorly of yourself makes you feel bad about yourself, which makes you act in a way that creates an outcome you don't want.... 

And here we have to recognize, we cannot separate Emotion from Cognition. The two are deeply connected and work together to create our individualized experience of the world.

 

Emotions & human Evolution

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Imagine this:

You're a caveperson back in cave times. As you are out gathering food, you come across a large bird sleeping on a rock. Curious, you take a few steps toward it, when suddenly, the creature awakens with a loud SQUAWK. It opens its wings wide and begins hissing at you. The bird is clearly angry and defensive. You see a nest at her feet. Uh-oh. You feel your heart begin to race. You put both your hands up and start to step back. Keeping your eyes on the bird, you keep walking backwards until you are out of sight. You see the mama bird close her wings and sit back down. Whew! That was a close one! 

In this scenario, we get to see how witnessing the behavior of Anger in the bird and physically feeling the experience of Fear within yourself helped you to avoid a dangerous confrontation and navigate your way to safety.

 

Emotions help us to understand the world around us and make better choices for our well-being.