What are emotions?

There are roughly 8 primary emotions (anger, sorrow, joy, surprise, fear, disgust, guilt/shame and interest). Everyone is born with a biological readiness for these emotions. All the other emotions are learned and are usually a combination of the primary emotions.

Emotions are reactions to events and they are complex and involve alot of components.

Emotions come and go. Most emotions usually only last a short period of time, rise then peak and fall again. Emotions can be self perpetuating and once started can continue to restart over and over. When an emotion stays it is then called a mood.

Events that prompt emotions can be outside in the environment or inside. A person’s own thoughts, behaviours and physical reactions can prompt emotions. One emotion can prompt another. Some events can even prompt emotions automatically without any thoughts about the event. However, most events do not automatically prompt emotions, instead the emotion is prompted by a person’s interpretation of the event ie what they think or believe about the event.

Emotions involve body changes, such as tensing or relaxing the muscles, changes in blood vessels, fluctuations in heart rate, pulse, temperature etc. Many people learn to inhibit or hide their body changes – at least some of the time. But even though they may not be obvious sensitive instruments could probably pick them up. Researchers now think that changes in facial muscles play a very important role in actually causing emotions.

Emotions involve brain changes. Some parts of the brain seem to be very important in regulating emotions and chemical changes in the brain appear to be integral part of different emotions.

Emotions involve sensing. When people have emotional feelings they are actually sensing their body and brain changes – this is what is usually meant by an ’emotional experience’.

Emotions involve action urges. An important part of emotion is to prompt behaviour (eg fight in anger, flight in fear) Although the actual action is not usually considered to be part of the emotion – the urge to act is.

With complex emotions interpretations, beliefs and assumptions may be part of the emotion. For example, despair is sadness combined with a belief that things are terrible and will not get better.

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