…for mind and body
This article was written by one of our contributors; health psychologist – Dr Sula Windgassen
What are emotions?
An emotion is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural and physiological elements”. This widely accepted definition identifies three key components: a subjective experience, a behavioural response and a physiological response. Experiencing an emotion is therefore a multimodal event.
Common basic emotional experiences
In 1972 it was theorised by psychologist, Paul Eckman, that there are six universal basic emotions transcending culture and subjective experiences: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness and sadness (1), which he later expanded to include a range of other emotions including shame, amusement, embarrassment, pride, contempt and satisfaction. The “wheel of emotions” was introduced by Robert Plutchik in the 80’s, which identified a much wider variety of emotions stemming from the basic classifications of emotion (2).
Emotion-driven behavioural responses
If we think of emotions from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that emotions are there to be useful to us rather than being a fancy extra in the human experience of life. We often talk about emotions being useful for notifying us to do something different. For example, if we’re fearful, we have a pretty strong motivation to get out of a situation and ensure our safety. Equally, in our more evolved state, if we feel guilt we’re being notified that we have done something that conflicts with our moral compass and should do something to rectify it. Again, evolutionarily this makes sense. If we behaved in a way that maintained social cohesion and acceptance, we were more likely to survive and be looked after by our tribe. When experiencing strong emotions, often we can have quite automatic behavioural responses. If we feel angry we may shout, if we feel happy we may smile. The behavioural component to emotions may also be more subtle. Where we feel satisfaction, the response may be to relax and rest, which the casual observer could misinterpret as not having a reaction at all. Similarly, if we’re anxious, often we’re not conducting any overt behaviours, but there is a lot of “covert” behaviour going on in our minds, in the form of planning, scanning and calculating. We may also be freezing.
The physiology of emotions
You may have heard about the fight/flight/freeze response. This is our inbuilt alarm signal hard wired by our central nervous system, which consists of our brain and spinal cord Evolutionarily, it was adaptive to have a quick set of reactions ready to go in the face of danger. Freezing allowed us to play dead until the threat was over. To accommodate this, our body can go on shut down mode, where it’s very hard to mobilise our limbs, our concentration is gone and only the essential organ systems are in motion. In fight or flight, we have the opposite physiological reaction: our bodies are mobilised with plenty of stress hormones such as adrenaline, coursing through our blood. You may be able to think of a time where you have felt nervous or worried and it was hard to keep still, or perhaps even, you had to rush to the loo. Our bodies may be trying to facilitate us to be “lighter on our feet” by speeding up bowel and bladder movements.
It is a myth that only negative emotions have a physical footprint. Positive ones do too. In fact, the experience of anxiety and excitement may feel very physically similar. More recent developments in neuroimaging techniques have also advanced our understanding of the physical footprints of emotions in the brain. Studies have demonstrated that the limbic system and the salience networks in the brain are engaged by emotional and body states simultaneously (3). This indicates that affective and physiological experiences go hand in hand at the neurological signalling level. This helps contextualise why we may physically feel something when we experience an emotion (e.g. butterflies in our stomach, when we’re nervous).
Although commonly used interchangeablyinterchangeable, emotions and moods are different. “Emotion”s describes the temporary affective experiences we experience that may shift relatively quickly and be triggered by different stimuli (internal or external). The term “mood” is used to describe more persisting emotional states that may characterise how we are feeling over a longer course of time. For example someone can feel
momentarily sad (the emotion) but not feel depressed (the mood state). The way we respond to our emotions, has an effect on our overall mood state.
While there are many ways we might respond to our emotions with plenty of nuance and variability, it can be helpful to think of a continuum with absolute avoidance of emotions at one end of the scale and over-identification with emotions, at the other end. Meeting emotional experiences at either end of the scale is likely to be unhelpful for us in the long term, although it may provide some relief or catharsis in the moment. Emotional avoidance and suppression involves pushing away emotions, which may be done automatically without conscious intention or forcefully. The pushing away of emotions has been associated with longer term emotional distress issues (4). The tendency to try and distance from distressing emotions is common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and identified as a key maintaining factor of the anxiety disorder (5). That is to say, the more individuals push away the distress, the more it manifests with a reduced sense of control. Studies have also demonstrated that distressing emotions that are avoided and suppressed can lead to physiological hyperreactivity (6), whereby the body experiences exaggerated physical responses compared to control groups not practicing emotional avoidance.
Safely approaching emotions
Turning towards emotions is not necessarily an easy thing to do. The degree of difficulty may depend on lots of factors, including the amount of distress, your socialisation to regulating emotions and early life adversity. If you have had good role models growing up, that have demonstrated how to manage emotions, you are more likely to have developed these skills yourself, over time. If it feels particularly scary, untenable, or even unthinkable and alien, it may be important to seek help from a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist. Psychological professionals can safely guide the process of turning towards difficult emotions, past and present, at an appropriate pace.
A first step in turning towards emotions, is familiarising yourself with the experience of different emotional states and labelling the experience. Plutchik’s emotion wheel [picture below] can be used to facilitate this, if it is a hard exercise. Noticing the emotional experience, including the physical sensations, can help orient us in the moment to our wider experience and provide us with an opportunity to make helpful choices in the moment. For example, rather than suppress and push away emotions, we may learn to use them to identify what our needs are and what is playing on our minds.
Journaling is another great way of turning towards our emotions and processing them. Journaling provides a safe space to express how you are feeling, without needing to justify or moderate. Expressive writing has been shown to be an effective intervention for reducing distress and improving mood (7REF). Other ways of turning towards our emotional experiences include mindfulness meditation, emotional expression to others in safe environments and other creative expressions such as art. It’s important to remember when trying out any of these strategies, is that emotion regulation does not mean the extinguishing of emotional experience. A much more helpful goal is to turn towards the emotional experience, acknowledge it and process it in your chosen method, whether meditating, journaling or something else entirely. These activities are not there to push away or rid yourself of that emotion but to process and be with it safely. From this place, you are more able to make helpful choices for yourself about what to do next.
In England there are primary care mental health services under the national Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) network of services. Many of these services are self-referral online or can be accessed via your GP. Mind charity also has an extensive repository of reputable organisations and resources for psychological support.
For some, private therapy may be an option. There are different types of therapy available and each therapeutic modality has their own regulating body. Practitioner psychologists are regulated by the Health Care Profession Council (HCPC). The HCPC website can be used to check accreditation of prospective psychologists. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the main evidence-based therapies for common mood disorders and other mental health conditions, including psychosis. CBT therapists are regulated by the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP). The BABCP has an online register to check that your therapist is appropriately accredited.
(1) Ekman P. Basic Emotions. Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. 2005:45-60. doi:10.1002/0470013494.ch3
(2) Plutchik R. In Search of the Basic Emotions. Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews. 1984;29(6):511-513. doi:10.1037/022979
(3) Oosterwijk, S., Lindquist, K. A., Anderson, E., Dautoff, R., Moriguchi, Y., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). States of mind: Emotions, body feelings, and thoughts share distributed neural networks. NeuroImage, 62(3), 2110-2128.
(4) Baziliansky, S., & Cohen, M. (2021). Emotion regulation and psychological distress in cancer survivors: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Stress and Health, 37(1), 3-18.
(5) Orcutt, H. K., Reffi, A. N., & Ellis, R. A. (2020). Experiential avoidance and PTSD. In Emotion in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (pp. 409-436). Academic Press.
(6) H Berenbaum, C Raghavan, H-N Le, LLVernon, JJ Gomez. A taxonomy of emotional disturbances. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2003), pp. 206-226
(7) Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. Guilford Publications.