Emotions are natural human responses that we feel, they are our energy-in-emotion.

They’re the result of your brain and body reacting to what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in each moment. When we feel strong emotions such as anger or joy, our bodies release chemicals that signal pain or pleasure. These chemicals can also cause physical reactions such as changes in heart rate or breathing patterns. 

Although difficult to understand at times, mainly because self-awareness is challenging as it’s down to personal perception, emotions are hugely important. They help us learn about ourselves and grow as human beings. In this article, you’ll learn the importance of understanding emotions, the core emotions to pay attention to, and how to use them to guide your life. 

What Are Emotions?

The word “emotion” is an umbrella term that describes feelings, sentiments, and expressions. 

According to neuroscientists, understanding emotions is the subjective, conscious experience of an individual. The brain creates these emotions based on how it perceives stimuli, including thoughts, memories, and physical states.

Emotions are different from moods. Emotions are short-term reactions, while moods are long-term ones. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, this might make you angry. Anger is an emotion. If the person keeps cutting you off every few minutes, you might start feeling resentment, which is a long-term mood.

You should also know that understanding emotions plays a large role in the way humans learn. Many famous psychologists such as B. F. Skinner believed that emotions influence learning processes in humans and all other animals. 

In addition, the field of neuroscience suggests that emotional reactions are hard-wired into our brains because people needed them for survival throughout human evolution. The fight or flight response is commonly referenced when discussing such matters.

What Do Emotions Look Like?

The way your emotions and feelings appear on the outside has a lot to do with how you feel on the inside. For example, if you’re stressed, this may lead to facial tension, such as clenching teeth or grinding jaws. When we feel anxious, we might sweat more because our bodies release chemicals that signal our stress. 

Nervous feelings cause our heart rate to go up, and the body releases endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are a type of natural painkiller that works similarly to morphine. If you’re excited, this might also lead to an increase in heart rate. You’ll typically end up talking fast and moving quickly as a result. 

All of these aspects are common to different types of emotions and feelings, such as fear, excitement, happiness, and stress.

Understanding emotions with the Wheel of EmotionUnderstanding emotions with the Wheel of Emotion

How Do Emotions Work?

Emotions are electrical signals that travel between different parts of your brain. 

Your limbic system, which consists of your amygdala and hippocampus, plays a vital role in creating emotions. The limbic system is responsible for memory and decision-making processes. It also causes you to recall specific memories that go along with certain types of emotions, such as anger. 

The amygdala and hippocampus create memories and associations based on your feelings and sensations as well as the stimuli in your environment.

What Different Types of Emotions Exist?

Every feeling you have is an emotion. However, there are many different types of emotions that humans experience daily, including love, happiness, frustration, and guilt. Each type has its own set of feelings attached to it. For example, if you were to go skydiving, you might become quite excited, which is a type of positive emotion. If your parachute doesn’t open on the way down, this will make you feel afraid, which is another type of emotion.

You’ll hear different concepts surrounding the topic of emotions when speaking to various therapists, doctors, and scientists. Some people say there are five or six basic emotions. Others say eight basic emotions exist. 

Let’s start with a larger list of potential emotions you might experience. Then, we’ll break down a few of the basic types to help with your goal of understanding emotions effectively.

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy 
  • Confusion 
  • Grief 
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Guilt 
  • Happiness 
  • Hope 
  • Jealousy 
  • Pride
  • Shame 
  • Sadness

Breaking Down Common Emotions

In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman broke down six emotions he identified as the most basic types. The list included happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise.

Happiness

Happiness is a type of positive emotion that comes from feeling good. 

You might feel happy when you have a strong sense of wellbeing or when you look forward to an upcoming event such as a wedding, vacation, or party. In this case, happiness relates to positive feelings about the future. 

Happiness is often generated by dopamine which stimulates your brain’s reward system. The reward system releases chemicals in the body to make you feel good.

You will see happiness expressed via body language such as smiling, but you might also hear the happiness in someone’s voice. A happy person might talk quickly or with a higher pitch than usual.

While we all want to feel happy, different life aspects create happiness for each person. If you’re someone who finds happiness in spending time with your family, you may place more importance on that than whether or not the Seattle Mariners win the World Series.

Typically, you’ll feel a deeper sense of happiness if you focus on inner reasons more than relying on outward, worldly reasons to stimulate happiness within you. For example, you might find a deeper sense of happiness by focusing on things like your personal growth, serving others, or spending time in nature.

You can control those inner solutions for feeling happy. You’ll discover that your ability to feel happy swings wildly if you rely on worldly events to dictate the emotion. For instance, if you’re not happy unless your favorite football team or political figure wins, you’re likely to feel unhappy often.

Sadness

Sadness is a type of negative emotion. You experience sadness when something takes away from your sense of wellbeing or causes you to feel pain in some way. 

You might also feel sad when you’re unable to achieve something due to a lack of education, money, or opportunity. Sadness often comes with feelings of grief or loss.

You might express sadness in your body language by slumping, having a sad face, or crying. You’ll also hear sadness when you listen to someone’s voice. A person who feels sad might speak with a slower tempo and lower pitch than usual.

Rather than trying to avoid sadness, it’s better to embrace it. At the same time, dwelling in it for too long might cause you to feel overwhelmed. For example, if you’re sad about losing your job or getting passed over for a promotion, work toward taking steps that help you move back into feeling happiness.

Anger

Anger is a type of negative emotion associated with feelings of annoyance, resentment, or fury. 

You might feel angry when you’re confronted with injustice, object to someone’s actions, or feel threatened in some way. You’ll often hear anger expressed through body language such as yelling and physical gestures. A person who feels angry might also speak rapidly and loudly than usual.

Expressing anger is part of being human. However, sometimes you might not feel it right away. You may suppress feelings of anger while trying to maintain a pleasant exterior. Suppressed anger becomes dangerous because it might bubble over later in some other way. 

For example, if you’re angry with your boss but keep it hidden at work, you might come home and yell at your spouse or child.

Anger is closely related to violent reactions such as hitting or harming another person. If you find yourself experiencing a great deal of anger, it’s critical to find ways to understand why you’re angry. From there, you can work toward safe, non-violent solutions to feeling better about the situation.

Disgust

Disgust is an emotion associated with feelings of repulsion or revulsion. You might feel disgusted when something seems unclean to you. A dirty floor, for instance, that’s covered in spilled, sticky soda might cause you to feel this way. 

Disgust also comes up when you see someone doing something that appears disgusting to you, such as picking up a piece of trash with their bare hands.

Disgust is similar to fear in that people experiencing it often want to avoid whatever they find repulsive or disagreeable. 

Aversion is a type of disgust where you feel an intense desire to stay away from something. You might experience this when you see a cockroach skittering across your kitchen counter, for example.

Disgust often comes with negative feelings such as scorn, criticism, or disapproval. It can also cause people to feel repulsive toward others.

The body language associated with disgust is often a wrinkling of the nose or making a face of disapproval. The person feeling disgusted may also speak in a tense tone and with words that demonstrate their strong feelings about what they’re seeing, like “Gross!” or “Yuck!”

Fear

Fear is a negative emotion that’s associated with feelings of alertness and anxiety about possible danger. 

You might experience fear when you’re confronted with an immediate threat, such as someone walking up behind you with a raised, sharp knife. Fear also comes up in situations where you think someone or something might harm you in the future. 

You’ll often experience fear expressed through body language such as trembling, having a fearful face, or shrieking. Fear can also come out in a voice that’s high-pitched and fast-paced.

A person experiencing extreme fear may have trouble thinking, making decisions, or concentrating on what’s happening around them. They might also feel an increased heart rate or have trouble breathing normally.

Fear relates to the fight-or-flight instinct, where someone either responds to a threat with force or tries to quickly get away from it. Fear can also lead you to freeze and stay still, as if not moving could increase your chances of avoiding detection by the threat.

Surprise

Surprise is an emotion that often indicates a sudden realization about the world around you. When you experience surprise, your eyes might get big and round, or your eyebrows might raise quickly. You may also make brief pauses after words when speaking because of the way surprise makes people’s brains momentarily stop working properly.

When experiencing surprise, you’re often looking or moving toward whatever it is that surprised you. You might stand suddenly when your best friend walks into the room, for example.

Surprise is often caused by unexpected events such as a close lightning strike or having something suddenly appear in your field of vision.

You may experience surprise on its own, or it may mix with other feelings such as fear or joy. When something surprising happens, you’ll probably feel startled for just a moment before experiencing the full force of the emotion associated with whatever caused your surprise.

Three More Important Emotions

Let’s add three more vital emotions to help you understand the way you experience feelings. 

Again, many more emotions exist than these three or the six explained above. However, it’s important to focus on a smaller number when working toward understanding emotions. It keeps you from feeling overwhelmed as you work toward gaining insight into how you feel daily. 

These three emotions are joy, trust, and anticipation.

Joy

Joy is an unusually strong feeling of happiness. You might experience joy when you accomplish something difficult, win a prize or award, or make someone else feel happy.

As with many emotions, the body language associated with joy often includes facial expressions that communicate positive feelings. People experiencing joy might smile widely and have open arms as if to invite others to join in the celebration.

Their voices may become loud and high-pitched, or they may yell, shout, or scream with excitement. Joy is often accompanied by physical feelings of pleasure, such as chills going down your spine or goosebumps on your skin.

Joy is closely related to love because it usually occurs when someone feels good about another individual or their relationship with that person. 

Trust

The emotion of trust involves feelings of certainty about someone or something in your life. You might feel trusting during a time when you don’t have any evidence to suggest that someone will hurt you. 

You might experience trust in someone you just met or about something that hasn’t happened yet, such as an upcoming school test or job interview. You may feel like everything will go well even though there’s no evidence to support this feeling.

When you feel trusting toward another person, you might act similarly to the way you do around a friend or someone close to you. You may lower your guard and show your true emotions without concern for how this might affect the other person. 

The opposite of trust is mistrust, and it often results in people avoiding eye contact, keeping an arm’s length away from others as if needing protection, and speaking more slowly and in a lower tone.

Anticipation

Anticipation is often related to joy because both emotions provide increased awareness of your surroundings. You feel anticipation when you sense that something good or wonderful might happen soon, such as expecting to see your best friend at the park after school. 

You might feel excited about an upcoming event such as a birthday party or vacation. You may also feel anticipation about something positive that you haven’t experienced yet but know will happen soon, such as seeing an animal at the zoo for the first time.

Anticipation is loosely related to fear because they both involve feelings of uncertainty about what might happen next. However, one connects with something good while the other connects with something bad.

Are There Benefits to Negative Emotions?

It might seem like an oxymoron to suggest that negative emotions can help us in any way. Unfortunately, they do exist, and just as with positive emotions, there are benefits to experiencing them. 

The most obvious example is fear. Although you’d probably prefer not to feel it at all, fear can work as a powerful motivator that keeps us from doing things we shouldn’t do.

For example, your fear of heights might prevent you from taking part in activities such as zip-lining or high diving. 

Use Negative Emotions as an Emotional Guide

You can choose to use negative emotions as a positive learning experience at any time. When you feel one, stop for a moment and ask yourself what might have caused it.

Sometimes you may experience an emotion that’s directly related to something that happened in the past or present. Other times, your feelings might arise due to thoughts about the future. 

By understanding where your emotions come from, you can take control of the situation and choose how to best deal with them. 

For example, are you weighing leaving your job for a better opportunity? It’s common to feel what we call negative emotions during this time. 

If you feel confusion or anxiety about taking the new job, ask yourself where the emotions come from. Is it simply because you’re hesitant about change? If so, start thinking about all the good things the better opportunity might bring. 

You’ll probably experience a transition from anxiety to anticipation and hope. If you do, then you’ve expertly listened to emotions and used them to guide you into a favorable decision.

Understanding emotions can help create a more positive view of yourself at any moment when you don’t know what to do. It’s always possible to find something good in every situation.

How to Deal More Effectively with Your Emotions

Write down a list of things that make you feel angry, sad, happy, or afraid. Think about past experiences and current ones to come up with the list. Include things like spending time with certain people or watching your favorite show on TV. Next, think about why these specific things make you feel the way you do.

When you stop to consider what causes your emotions, it can help you figure out how to best deal with them in the future. For example, if spending time with certain people always makes you feel sad, think about why this is and plan a way to avoid these people in the future.

When you feel intense negative emotions, stop and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Use these feelings as an opportunity to become a stronger person.

Once you find something positive within each moment, you’ll begin to feel better about yourself and the world around you. You might even find it easier to deal with negative emotions when they do arise because you know how good it feels to move beyond them.

6 Methods to Help You React Better to Emotions

Use the following six steps the next time you feel strong emotions and want to work through the cause. Doing so will help you gain greater control over feelings that used to overtake and overwhelm you. Read our post on finding mental balance during uncertain times for further help.

1. Relax and remain patient with yourself

2. Acknowledge your emotions even if you don’t understand them

3. Take a step back to consider what might have caused the emotion in the first place

4. Write down a list of things that make you feel each positive or negative emotion

5. When an intense emotion arises, try to find something positive to take from it

6. Remember that all emotions can help you understand yourself better and motivate you towards a positive future

Put this list somewhere you can access it at any time throughout the day. Commit to taking a deep breath and running your thoughts down the list each time you feel a wave of overwhelming emotions. 

Over time, you’ll discover that understanding emotions isn’t something to fear. Positive and negative emotions alike provide emotional guideposts to help you navigate each life situation you find yourself dealing with.

Conclusion

What do you think? Do you look at interpreting feelings and understanding emotions differently now? Continue to work toward understanding emotions. The more you practice, the more you’ll see yourself as a person with deep emotional awareness who can navigate the ups and downs of life.

Charlie Penwarden

Former mental health nurse turned consultant with a critical focus on human behaviour research analysis and the optimisation of mental health management to prevent illness and promote life harmony.