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What are emotions?

Emotions are basic to my field of work and study, psychotherapy and psychology. Emotions have been studied, explored, and written about by thousands, perhaps millions of people, from poets to neuroscientists. They are part of the experience of every human being on the planet. They are the source of much of both the joy and suffering in human history.

And no one knows what emotions are.

That is to say, there is no commonly agreed-upon scientific definition of “emotion”. There is no agreement as to whether emotions are a part of thinking processes, biological processes, or a combination of both. There is no agreement as to how much of emotional experience is based on automatic physiological responses and how much of it is learned. Some experts believe there are a core set of “basic” human emotions (one set: anger, fear, joy, surprise, disgust, and sadness), but there isn’t agreement about what those basic emotions are, or if there is such thing as core emotions. There isn’t agreement about whether “emotions” and “feelings” are the same thing.

Fortunately, you can learn to work with your emotions pretty effectively without having to know exactly what emotions are or where they come from. But I find it useful to have a working definition of emotions. My working definition is this: emotions are communications from your unconscious mind.

In my post about the unconscious mind I talked about how the unconscious mind is always working behind the scenes, examining what is happening around us and trying to understand it based on past experiences, beliefs, etc. When the unconscious thinks it recognizes something significant that is happening, it takes action. But it doesn’t have the final say, and it only has control over certain things. For example, if it thinks that something dangerous is about to happen, it can cause adrenaline to be released into your bloodstream and it can make you feel afraid. But, generally speaking, it is your conscious mind that makes the decision about what action to take.

So the unconscious mind makes us feel emotions and causes things to happen in our body. Some people say that emotions are those changes in the body, like changes in heart rate or how fast you are breathing. You might say that emotions are how your conscious mind interprets the sensations caused by those body changes. One thing is for sure: emotions are very connected to physical feelings in your body, probably for a variety of reasons. Because of this I sometimes think of emotions as the place where the conscious mind and body connect.

I have found that the most effective way to help someone discover what he is feeling is to have him breathe quietly for a few minutes and pay attention to his body sensations. He will usually discover some sensation(s) – pain, pressure, tension, heat or cold, etc. – in some part(s) of his body. If he keeps focusing his attention on the sensations, often he will quickly become aware that he is also feeling certain emotions. Sometimes the emotions will also be connected to particular memories.

Generally if the body sensations change, so will the emotions. For example, if you are feeling tension in your chest, you may be holding your breath or breathing very shallowly. This is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety. If you consciously take deeper, slower breaths, after a few minutes your chest will relax and you will start to feel less anxious.

Another important piece of the puzzle of emotions is that your unconscious mind can’t seem to tell the difference between actual experiences, memories of past experiences, and imagined experiences. If you remember or imagine an experience very vividly, your unconscious mind will react as though it is really happening, right now, and will trigger your body accordingly. That’s how you can find your heart racing in fear or your body getting turned on just by thinking about or remembering certain things, even though you are alone.

The intensity of emotions varies a great deal from person to person or within one person at different times or in different circumstances. There are many factors that influence emotional intensity. One is the person’s personality and nervous system. Some people are born more or less sensitive to body sensations and emotions than others, or become more or less sensitive due to medical conditions or life experiences. People also vary a great deal in how they tolerate and react to their emotions.

People can learn ways to modify their tolerance of and reactivity to their emotions. This can be helpful, especially for people who are on the extreme ends of emotional sensitivity or reactivity. There is a wide range of “normal” sensitivity, though, so the decision about what is “too much” or “too little” is ultimately up to each individual.

There are a large variety of tools available for emotion management. In psychotherapy people can learn new ways of thinking and feeling about themselves and the world around them and developing new habitual thought patterns. They can also deal with past traumas that may be causing emotional “loops” that are hard to get out of.

Lifestyle changes can have a big impact on emotions. A healthy diet, exercise, time with loved ones, and enjoyable hobbies can all increase a person’s emotional health. Meditative activities like meditation, yoga, prayer, and nature walks can also increase emotional health. Enjoying and/or making music and other arts can have a similar impact.

Many people medicate themselves as a way of managing emotions. This can be in the form of prescription drugs like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. It can also be in the form of alcohol, marijuana, caffeine, or other drugs. Many people are not aware that they are using drugs to manage their emotions.

To wrap up, I want to emphasize that emotions arise as a result of processes in your unconscious mind, which you do not control. You can’t choose what to feel. On the other hand, you – i.e., your conscious mind – can control what you do in response to your emotions, and you can learn healthier, more effective ways to manage and respond to your emotions. A good psychotherapist will be happy to help.

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