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Understanding Human Emotions

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10 min

Understanding Human Emotions

Life is a rollercoaster of human emotions. We get happy, we get sad, we get startled by the spiders. Yet, to have a peaceful and healthy mind, it’s crucial not only to feel emotions but also to understand them.

Being able to answer “What emotion am I feeling, and why?” is the first step to self-discovery, which, by itself, must be an exciting journey. But it’s not just about the thrill.

Knowing how human emotions work is your ticket to handling life’s challenges with more care for yourself. Knowing your EQ code and how to improve it will definitely help you.

After all, we all have our ups and downs, and the key is choosing effective coping strategies instead of feeling overwhelmed or trapped in emotional distress.

So, let’s explore where human emotions come from, how they work, and how you can ride your emotional waves in a better, more self-loving way. 

What are human emotions? 

Emotions are our mental reactions to the events and experiences we face, which trigger physiological and behavioral changes. This definition is based on the APA Dictionary of Psychology, which breaks down human emotions into three parts:

  • Experiential
  • Physiological
  • Behavioral

Let’s take a closer look at each of them. 

The experiential element

The experiential element is all about how we feel subjectively in response to some stimuli. It includes the kind of emotion we’re feeling, how intense it is, and how much attention we give it.

Because even though all people have similar basic human emotions (we’ll dive into those later), the same thing can trigger different reactions in each of us.

To give you a clearer picture, let’s say you’re in the park with your friend, and suddenly, “Someone Like You” by Adele starts playing on someone’s phone nearby. This song might remind you of dancing at a party with your first love, making you feel nostalgic and happy.

On the other hand, your friend might associate it with a recent tough breakup and get sad. Your joy might be mild because your first love was a while ago, but your friend’s sadness could be intense since her breakup is still fresh.

The experiential element of emotions comes to us unconsciously. But even though you can’t control it, you must learn to identify this element correctly to meet your emotional needs.

Make a habit of asking yourself now and then, “What kind of human emotion am I feeling?” You can also use mood trackers like the Breeze app. It’ll help you monitor your emotions and the triggers setting them off.  

The physiological element 

The physiological element in human emotions is the way our body responds to emotional stimuli. It can vary based on personal experiences and the context of the emotional experience. But the most common examples include changes in: 

  • Heart rate. It goes up when you’re happy and can rise quickly when you’re angry or frightened.
  • Facial expression. We smile for joy, cry when upset, our faces flush when we’re angry, our eyes widen when we’re surprised, we wrinkle our noses for disgust, and so on.
  • Breathing patterns. Sadness is linked to sighs, anger, and fear—to quick and shallow breaths and surprise—to a sudden gasp.
  • Muscle tension. When we’re happy, we’re generally relaxed. Anger increases tension in the jaw, shoulders, and fists. Disgust tightens facial muscles and the stomach area.
  • Appetite and digestion. Individual gastrointestinal responses can vary, but common patterns include reduced appetite when frightened and gastrointestinal discomfort when stressed. Stress, while not an emotion itself, often consists of a mix of feelings like anger (shown as irritability), fear (expressed through anxiety), and sadness (revealed as despair). 

All these changes in our bodies caused by emotions occur involuntarily, resulting from the work of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

ANS is a complex mechanism that, among other things, activates our fight-or-flight response. This response is our survival mode: it allows us to immediately prepare our bodies to face a threat by either fending off or running away. 

Now, we have two elements of human emotions—one is unconscious, and the other is involuntary. So, can we control our emotions, or do they control us? Actually, the behavioral part holds the answer. 

The behavioral element

The behavioral element is how we express our emotions. Sometimes, it’s closely interconnected with the physiological element. For instance, certain facial expressions, like smiling, can be part of both. This is because human emotions are complex reactions, meaning that changes in our feelings, bodies, and actions don’t happen in isolation; they are linked. 

The physiological part of facial expressions involves muscle contractions in the face. However, when we smile, it’s not just because our facial muscles are involuntarily activated; we can also smile because we want to.

This behavioral element of emotions can manifest itself through: 

  • Body language: posture, gestures, movements
  • Verbal expression: choice of words, tone of voice, voice volume
  • Coping strategies: healthy (seeking support, mindfulness techniques, physical exercises, etc.) and unhealthy (avoidance, self-harm, isolation, etc.)

This behavioral element in human emotions is influenced by an individual’s cultural background. For example, a cross-cultural study by Lu and Gilmour suggests that Americans consider happiness as “being upbeat” and energetically positive. Meanwhile, the Chinese understanding leans towards a more solemn and reserved expression.

Involving visible actions and expressions, the behavioral element allows us to communicate our emotions and understand what others are feeling. That’s a key aspect of social interactions and interpersonal relationships. 

But the most important thing is that the behavioral element contains a lot of deliberate aspects. We can choose coping strategies for different situations and change them as needed.

For instance, by relying on self-will or professional support, a person can replace avoidance behavior with problem-solving, emotional eating with engaging in physical activities or opting for healthier snacks, and so on.

Basic and complex human emotions: What am I feeling?

Which emotion are you feeling? Is it anger or envy? Guilt or just sadness? Excitement or anxiety? Human emotions are commonly categorized into two main groups: basic and complex.

To help you better recognize emotions in yourself and others, let’s look into each of these categories.  

Basic emotions

Basic emotions are fast, universal, and ingrained in our nature. They originated as responses to challenges faced by our ancestors. That’s why basic emotions are sometimes referred to as “primary.” 

The classic theory identifies six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. They were identified by Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, at the end of the 20th century.

Initially, Ekman included contempt as the seventh basic emotion but later dropped it because it wasn’t as clear and universally recognized as the other six.

However, Ekman’s theory is not the only one in the field of emotional psychology. Some recent studies suggest that there are only four basic human emotions.

These researchers insist that fear and surprise, as well as anger and disgust, are so similar that they should be combined. According to this theory, the differences between these pairs emerged later due to socio-cultural factors, not because of some primal survival necessity.

While there are numerous theories about human emotions, we’ll stick with Ekman’s for now, as it’s the most widely recognized concept.

The classic Ekman’s list is commonly found in different articles on the topic and emotion quizzes. So, let’s take a closer look at each of the basic emotions.

Happiness

Happiness encompasses various mental states like contentment, joy, satisfaction, optimism, and pleasure. In Ekman’s theory, it stands out as the only emotion considered positive. Relying on the primal origin theory, we can only suggest that it’s because our ancestors simply needed to sense if something was generally safe to survive. They didn’t need a full menu of happiness “flavors.”

But beyond making us feel good, what’s the purpose of happiness as a basic human emotion? Primarily, it fuels our motivation. It guides us in identifying activities that bring joy and fulfillment, encouraging us to pursue them.

Numerous studies explore the causes of happiness, considering factors like genes, life circumstances, money habits, and experiences. However, the key takeaway is that happiness is a subjective emotion. What brings happiness to one person might not work for someone else.

We must also understand that happiness isn’t a final destination or a permanent state of mind. Like other human emotions, it has a temporal and fluctuating nature. No one feels happy all the time.

Sadness

What type of feeling are you experiencing when you’re sad? For most people, the list includes loss, sorrow, melancholy, despair, and disappointment. Even though sadness is often seen as a negative emotion, it’s actually a healthy and adaptive response to unmet expectations. It’s a signal that tells us we need to recover from loss and communicates to others that we might need support.

Feeling upset when things don’t go as planned is entirely normal, whether it’s about something tangible, like a salary increase, or intangible, like not receiving mutual feelings from someone we love.

However, if sadness becomes persistent or overwhelming, it can impact our daily life and well-being.

For example, if you are asking yourself, “Why do I feel so empty,” or “Am I lazy or depressed“, can point to some mental health symptoms. That’s why choosing healthy coping strategies is crucial. 

Anger

Anger is characterized by irritability, frustration, resentment, aggression, and annoyance. It surfaces when we sense threats, provocations, or injustices, triggering our natural instinct to protect ourselves.

While anger is a normal and common human emotion, it’s essential to express it in healthy ways. Uncontrolled or intense anger can escalate into rage, causing harm to ourselves or others. If you find that anger arises too frequently or is challenging to manage, take a moment to explore why. Start by asking yourself: What are my triggers? Identifying them is vital in understanding and effectively managing this human emotion.

Fear

Fear is closely associated with feelings of anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, dread, and insecurity.

These emotions often arise in response to the perceived threat of harm, which can be either real, like being chased by a lion, or imagined, such as the fear of flying even when there’s no present danger of a plane crash.

When we take all human emotions, fear is probably the one that has contributed to our survival the most. Thanks to fear, our ancestors ran away from wild animals and avoided dangerous situations like jumping from high, sharp rocks.

​​However, extreme or irrational fears can lead to anxiety and phobias. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety affects nearly 30% of adults, which makes it the most common commonly experienced mental illness. If anxiety significantly impacts your daily life, seeking therapeutic intervention might be a viable coping strategy.

Disgust

Disgust manifests in aversion, repulsion, revulsion, contempt, and loathing. We feel the emotion of disgust in response to offensive, unpleasant, or repugnant stimuli. These stimuli include physical senses like the taste of spoiled food, actions like excessive nose-picking, and so on. 

The primary role of disgust as a basic human emotion is to steer us away from potentially harmful situations.

However, when disgust takes an extreme or irrational form, it can lead to unhealthy avoidance behaviors. In such cases, replacing these behaviors with healthier coping mechanisms, like those learned in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or gradual exposure, becomes crucial for overall well-being. 

Surprise

Surprise is related to mental states like astonishment, bewilderment, curiosity, and uncertainty. It typically occurs in response to something new or unexpected. The main goal of this primary emotion is to draw our attention to what’s happening around us so we can determine whether it’s dangerous or not. 

In essence, the emotion of surprise helps us quickly shift our focus, evaluate the situation, and respond effectively to new information.

While generally beneficial, intense negative surprises linked to distressing events can contribute to the development of serious mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In such cases, seeking support from mental health professionals becomes essential for comprehensive care and recovery.

Human emotions as cute pictures

Complex emotions

Complex emotions, as defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology, are blends of two or more basic emotions. Unlike automatic basic emotions, they involve higher cognitive processes and rely heavily on individual interpretations of events.

Given the intricate nature of this category of human emotions, there is no exhaustive list or clear-cut definitions. Much depends on the specific context an individual experiences. But here are a few simplified examples:

  • Envy: Desiring something possessed by someone else, often accompanied by emotions of anger and sadness.
  • Hate: Intense dislike of something or someone, typically combining basic emotions like anger, fear, and disgust.
  • Guilt: Regretting actions, words, or behavior, often comprising sadness, fear, and anger.
  • Embarrassment: Experiencing a violation of social norms, expectations, or personal standards, typically mixing sadness and fear.

When it comes to complex emotions, it’s harder to identify what feeling you are experiencing and, thus, navigate your emotional landscape. So, let’s talk more about how to deal with your emotions, especially when they become distracting.

How to build healthier relationships with your human emotions?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed, thinking, “I just have an emotional personality”? Or do you believe there’s little you can do about your intense emotions, even when they become harmful to you?

If so, here’s the good news: you can actually learn how to handle your emotions. It’s not an easy task (no one promised that), but you can do it, just like anyone else.

A quick disclaimer: I don’t encourage you to suppress your emotions in any way. My goal is to provide you with some helpful tips on how to live a harmonious, healthy life, enjoying and making use of them.

So here’s what you can do to overcome emotional challenges in a healthy way.

Enhance your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is our ability to comprehend and manage our own emotions while also understanding and empathizing with the feelings of others. It helps us effectively build positive relationships, communicate, and resolve conflict.

Earlier in this article, we explored the behavioral element of human emotions, mentioning that it’s the way we express our feelings. This element is closely intertwined with emotional intelligence.

When we can effectively express and control our emotions through our behavior, as well as understand the emotions of others, it positively impacts our well-being and strengthens our social connections. 

To enhance your emotional intelligence, start by measuring it. Try Breeze and take online tests to discover more about your personality.

Learn healthy coping strategies 

A coping strategy is a deliberate behavior we use to manage our emotions. These strategies vary depending on our individual preferences, personality, and the nature of the stress we face. Generally, they are divided into healthy and unhealthy.

Healthy strategies help us deal with our emotions in a self-caring manner without causing harm to us. Examples include:

  • Seeking support from a mental health professional or your close ones
  • Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques (like 333 rule for anxiety)
  • Regular physical exercise
  • Embracing a healthy lifestyle, including proper nutrition, sufficient sleep, and limiting alcohol intake
  • Engaging in activities that make you happy

Additionally, a crucial healthy coping mechanism involves reframing negative thoughts.

Fight negative patterns in thinking and cognitive distortions

Negative patterns in thinking are our habit of processing events, information, and experiences pessimistically, for example, through catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, labeling, and overgeneralization.

Meanwhile, cognitive distortions refer to systematic patterns of negative thinking. 

Both negative patterns in thinking and cognitive distortions affect our emotions. They exaggerate a sense of threat, trigger feelings of frustration and hopelessness, downplay positive experiences, and so on.

Consequently, our emotions of fear or sadness become more intense without objective reasons, while our happiness decreases. 

Since many negative thoughts are automatic and may go unnoticed, it’s helpful to monitor them consciously.

Conclusion

Emotions are a natural part of our experience as human beings. They help us survive, understand what we need, and build relationships with others. While we may not always control our emotions, we retain the power to choose our responses to them. 

If you learn and monitor your emotions instead of ignoring them, stick to healthy coping strategies over harmful ones, and dispel negative thinking rather than rely on cognitive distortions, you’ll surely pave the way for a healthier and happier life.

Here is a pro tips on how to undertand your emotions from Cimone Safilian, PhD, TLLP:Starting to track and understand your emotions can seem like an overwhelming task – but it doesn’t have to be! Here are a few tips to help get you started: 1. Choose your tracking method – this can be a handwritten journal, the notes app on your phone, or a mood-tracking app. 2. Utilize the emotion categories described in this article – sticking to a few basic emotions to start out will keep things from getting too complicated and overwhelming. You can gradually add more nuanced emotions once you are feeling more confident with this exercise. 3. Set a regular, daily check-in time – for most people, it is easiest to do this as part of your nighttime routine or to have a period of reflection before going to sleep. You can recount the happenings of your day and write down what your emotional reactions were. Practicing this exercise daily is key to becoming more comfortable with it and advancing to more complex emotional identification, thus increasing your emotional intelligence.
Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP photo

Reviewed by Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP

Dr. Hanif is a practicing therapist and behavioral health writer/editor. She received her PhD in International Psychology from The...