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What is the meaning of Emotion?

The word emotion is derived from Latin meaning “outwardly directed movement or gesture”. Emotions are a primitive and powerful form of communication among human beings. They speak a language of their own through our facial muscles and body language. As emotions are located in the unconscious part of our mind, we do not have total control over when they arise within us. Emotions though play a vital role in that they allow us to manage and plan our lives successfully.

What are emotions?

Researchers agree that emotions can be broken down into 3 aspects:

  1. Subjective Feeling – This is how a person interprets an emotion on an individual level at any given moment. This part of the emotion is not observable as it is an inner personal experience. Although emotions are felt the same universally, no two people experience an emotion the same way. They bring to the emotion their own personal experiences. Therefore each person will describe an emotion differently to one another.
  2. Physiological Response – This part refers to the bodily changes as we experience the emotion. The brain at this moment involves the autonomic nervous system. The arousal of the emotion makes us aware of it physically.
  3. Expressive Behaviour – This final part refers to the external signs of an emotion. The face usually indicates an emotion such as embarrassment by blushing. Body language also plays a vital part at this stage. An individual feeling sad may exhibit a slouched posture. This external aspect of the emotion is generally observable by others.

What is the purpose of emotions?

Humans seem to have evolved emotions for several reasons:

  1. Arouse action within us – this happens through the autonomic nervous system e.g. heart rate increases and adrenaline is released causing restlessness.
  2. Adaptive function – This means we are able to cope with certain situations and respond in appropriate ways according to the situation in order to ensure survival. An example of this being is when our body will freeze or prepare to fight when in imminent danger to protect us. If the danger is greater than our ability to handle it by fighting, our body will become geared up to run with lightning speed in order to escape for survival.
  3. Emotions distinguish us from other species. They serve to motivate us into action.
  4. Emotions add colour and depth to our lives. We are in constantly changing moods throughout our lives. Whether we are susceptible to slow change or impulsive tendencies is a personal difference, but no person stays in a continuous state of a sad or happy mood.
  5. Strong emotions allow for creativity such as displayed in art and literature.
  6. Emotions help to control our behaviour towards others – i.e. if the other person is angry our emotional state will signal for us to stay away from the angry person who may become aggressive or violent.
  7. Emotions also help us to identify the behaviour of others through their mood. For example we can identify and relate to a happy person – who is approachable and avoid disagreeable individuals.

Are emotions universal?

Emotions are felt universally by all human beings regardless of gender, age, culture, creed or colour. The way we feel the array of emotions transcends all our differences. For example an angry person on a remote island in the middle of an ocean will feel the same at that given moment to an angry person in the middle of a major city of the world, despite their different upbringing and genetics. They may feel a different intensity of the emotion anger, but the physical and physiological aspects of the emotion will be the felt the same way.

Evolutionary benefit of emotions

Emotions played a great role in the lives of our ancestors. They relied on their emotions to help them through times of difficulty. For instance if an individual was faced with grave danger their primitive reaction of “fight or flight” kicked in to help them survive

Importance of arousal levels

Emotions are a form of energy. We can identify how strong each emotion is through its arousal level. The right level of arousal needs to be found for each individual in order to function at your optimum level. Too little – boredom sets in. Too much – stress levels rise causing other physical and psychological harm.

Physical and Psychological

The part of the mind that deals with emotions is different to the part that deals with logical thought. When someone is highly emotional they are usually at the mercy of their emotions. This is why when we experience emotions such as anger, we are unable to assess a situation logically as we have allowed the primitive part of the brain to take over and assess for survival. When we are in survival mode we have to act quickly. When we are under such pressure to make a rash decision, we cannot think logically.

What is the difference between a real or perceived emotion?

Any stimuli can cause an emotion. It is not necessarily an external stimuli which can cause us to feel a certain way. So for instance if we see an animal such as a lion, our body gears us up to feel fear and prepare for an escape. But our internal thought process can also make us afraid just by thinking of the stimuli. This is why when we watch a horror movie, we are afraid. Our unconscious cannot differentiate between real and perceived threats. The emotional response to a threat is unconscious.

Can we fake emotions?

Choose an emotion

Choose an emotion

Yes we can almost certainly fake an emotion, but unfortunately, not entirely. This is because we do not have the conscious ability to control all our body muscles to mimic the real emotion we want. We may try to smile with our mouth when we are sad, but other facial muscles will not comply. This is why when you give a genuine smile, the muscles in your entire face work in harmony and your eyes appear to light up.

When you give someone an “artificial” smile, the smile will not extend to the eyes. There are many other muscles which will not comply either. If we truly pay attention, our unconscious mind can pick up these cues and indicate that the person we are interacting with is not genuine. Although we are not able to identify exactly what it is about the person that appears deceptive, our unconscious mind knows by detecting the body language.

However, having said that, there is also evidence to suggest that, despite being sad and faking a smile, we can in a sense cause the physiology of our body chemistry to change our bad mood into a good one. The smile can reverse the negative internal feeling and help us to focus on positive aspects of our life. It is hard to imagine a disaster when you are smiling. So when you force a smile, it may take a while but you can in effect make yourself feel “happy.”

What if we were to lose our emotions?

An example of what happens if we were to lose our emotions came to light with the unusual case of a railroad worker in U.S.A, named Phineas Gage in 1848. During an explosion, a thin iron rod was blown through the front of his left cheek right through his skull, exiting at the top of the head. The front of the left part of his brain was badly damaged by this incident. This is the area responsible for controlling emotions as well as our ability to reason.

Although he survived, his quality of life was adversely affected. He went from being a responsible and sociable individual into an unreliable, impatient and indecisive individual. Such examples teach us the importance of how our emotions are managed by the brain. When this part of the brain is affected, thus compromising our ability to process our emotions, our ability to reason and plan is adversely affected.  Our personality changes drastically.

Patients in this day and age showing the same damage to the brain as Gage, have problems with their ability to reason and plan.

Emotional Intelligence Tests

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Many emotional intelligence tests have been designed to test our emotional capability. They differ from normal intelligence tests as they measure our intelligence in relation to our emotions and not simply our mental ability. A highly intelligent person may not necessarily score well on an emotional intelligence test.

Although not conclusive, these tests are designed to help us to understand the various aspects of our emotional intelligence which according to them, can be broken down into the following:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. How we manage our own emotions
  3. Motivation – what drives us on
  4. Empathy – Our ability to understand another person’s viewpoint
  5. Relationship handling – how we manage other people’s emotions

Where are emotions located?

Emotions are located within you. People who look to the outside have missed the point of dealing with their emotions. It is no other person’s fault that you are feeling the way you do. Individuals who blame other people for their own emotions are in effect refusing to take responsibility for how they are feeling. When they are angry it is always the fault of the other person who has evoked the anger within them.

Because they are naive in their understanding of their emotions, they assume the other person is to blame and may even lash out at the person they believe is responsible for their anger. If they were to look within, they would realize that they need to identify the triggers which set of their anger and learn to control this instead of aiming their aggression at the perceived target.

Identifying the physical symptoms helps to identify the emotion or combination of emotions you feel.

Repressed Emotions

Emotions which do not have a healthy outlet are signified by the following types of behaviour and symptoms:

  1. Excess work, eating and use of drugs such as alcohol
  2. Uncomfortable talking about feelings and emotions
  3. Being stressed and over-reacting at minor incidences
  4. Suffering from physical illnesses such as fatigue and depression
  5. Showing humour to all but suffering internal emotional distress.

How do beliefs affect emotions?

We may repress our emotions for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that we may believe that a certain emotion is bad or evil and therefore suppress it, not believing that it can be a part of us. We may as children have been punished for exhibiting certain emotions and as adults feel uncomfortable confronting our inner feelings. Our emotions may have been ignored or ridiculed by others which can also cause us to feel uncomfortable to acknowledge them. It is easier in such cases to ignore our inner emotions and pretend by diverting your attention.

The truth is there is not good or bad emotion. Emotions are a barometer of your inner state of mind. They arise to help you resolve your inner conflict or harmony. They tell your inner story. The least you can do is to address and acknowledge them. Dealing with them adequately comes later.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when the emotional needs of an individual are not being met or are being violated in some way. Unfortunately, it is usually an individual who is closest to us emotionally who is able to abuse us in this way. We often need help to escape the cycle of abuse which becomes reinforced with each act of abuse. As it is difficult to break this vicious cycle on your own, it is best to speak to someone rather than keep the issue bottled up.

Cycle of Abuse

Cycle of Abuse

Emotional abuse is usually most prominent in a relationship with a partner although it can occur just as easily in parent and child relationships as well as other types of relationships. The abuser uses subtle intimidating methods as opposed to aggressive violence.

The abuser usually uses the tactics below to control the victim:

  1. Displays acts of extreme jealousy
  2. Little or no regard for personal feelings and property of victim
  3. Ignoring victim when s/he goes against the requirement of abuser.
  4. Belittling and bullying victim either using nasty remarks or by shouting
  5. Controlling aspects of the victim’s life such as phone usage and monitoring of the company kept by victim etc.

The effects of emotional abuse can be devastating for the victim as the abuse is usually internalized. It can take a long time to recover. No matter how “good” the victim is, the abuser will always find a way to intimidate and invalidate the victim’s feelings. The problem here is not that if the victim makes the necessary changes, the abuser will stop abusing the victim, the issue is with the behaviour of the abuser. The abuser needs help to control the abusive behaviour as opposed to controlling the victim.

An emotionally healthy individual feels:

  1. Secure
  2. Gets quality attention
  3. Feel part of the community at large
  4. Feel challenged as opposed to stressed
  5. Enjoys socializing and the company of others
  6. Have a degree of control and influence in their lives

The ideal situation is to try to understand our own feelings and emotions before we can actually understand the feelings and emotions of others. If we understand ourselves better first, we know what makes us happy or sad we are in a better position to handle the emotions of another person.

While we are in a situation where we are not involved in a relationship, we should ideally use this time to get to know ourselves better and love, respect and understand our inner self and this in turn will make us better fulfilled partners when we do embark on a relationship. By understanding our emotional needs, we are also in a better position to recognize the type of partner we are looking for once he/she comes along  instead of going through more trial and error way of finding a partner. With deep understanding of our own feelings and emotions we can recognize the qualities we seek in others.

Read more about Emotions on this site.

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