What are emotions?

Our emotions empower us to make decisions, pursue our interests, build loving relationships, and protect ourselves. They instantly signal how we feel about what is happening at each moment. If we feel scared we might withdraw; if excited we might join in the fun. Sometimes we’ll experience mixed emotions: perhaps we want to speak up but fear embarrassing ourselves. 

Our emotions are influenced by our personality, our thoughts, our life experiences, and our memories. When asked a question, we might want to say, ‘Yes”, or ‘No’ but remain silent to avoid a  hurtful response. 

Do you repeat behaviours that don’t achieve a good result? Perhaps because you fear upsetting people, or don’t want to be rejected. 

The great news is: you can change. You can change your thoughts, responses, and behaviours. By noticing what your emotions are telling you, you can choose the best response. You can decide whether to respond gently, assertively, or powerfully. 

How emotions work 

Emotions reveal what we do and don’t like: fear alerts us to danger; excitement draws us to activities we enjoy. If we’re threatened, we can choose whether to defuse a situation, challenge the aggressor, or escape. If treated lovingly, we can open ourselves to connect with others. 

Our ability to sense, interpret and regulate our emotions, and to sense the emotions of others, is called emotional intelligence. This complex and sensitive mechanism activates in milliseconds,  instantly combining our personality traits, our learned patterns of behaviour, and our past experiences. Emotions are experienced in the mind and body. We might tremble with fear, sob with grief, or bubble-over with enthusiasm. 

If we wake in the night to the sound of breaking glass, in less than a millisecond our fear will activate our Fight, Flight, Freeze response to protect us. If we suffer loss, we might experience grief, disbelief, anger, or anxiety. 

By interpreting our emotions, we can choose the best action or response in each situation. When we say: I just know, or I have a gut feeling, or It feels right, emotions, intuition, experiences and thoughts have combined to alert us to what is happening. 

Experiencing our emotions 

Emotions are our reactions to what is happening within us and around us. Some of us try to ignore these because we think emotions are the problem. Instead, we distract ourselves by keeping busy,  watching TV often, working too hard, or drinking alcohol. We might play excessive amounts of sport, shop compulsively, or eat or drink more than we need. 

If we often experience negative emotions, such as fear, worthlessness, or self-doubt, these will restrict us from doing what we want, and from speaking up when we want to. This leaves us vulnerable. 

Instead of avoiding these precious, protective messengers, we can attend to them. Emotions faithfully alert us to what we love and want, and to what we fear and don’t want. They remind of problems that need our attention. If we ignore a nagging chest pain, anxiety will be a faithful reminder. If our relationship is filled with conflict, our fear and distress will alert us to seek safety. 

Rather than ignoring our emotions, we can attend to them; experience them not push them away.  By identifying which emotions we are feeling, (there are 27 categories of emotion), we can work out the cause. Then we can work out how to resolve the cause. The more we tune into our emotions, we more quickly we’ll work out the cause so we can choose a protective response.

If we’ve experienced harm in the past, our fear might stop us from challenging hurtful words and behaviours. Instead, we’re likely to try and keep the peace by agreeing, even though we remain fearful. 

By recognising which emotions are protective and inform us, we can be guided by them. 

By recognising which emotions are outdated, incorrect or unhelpful, we can heal our emotional wounds and regain our personal power. 

Our emotions guide and protect us 

There are many ways to tune into your emotions so they can guide you. These include: 

• When you experience an emotion, identify what it is and what’s caused it. Then choose your response. 

• Examine your thoughts—your self-talk. If this is negative, hurtful or not true about you, you can replace it with accurate, self-affirming thoughts. Each time you do this, you’ll build new thinking and feeling patterns. 

• Self-soothe – learning to calm and soothe yourself can be very powerful. If you feel overwhelmed, you can quickly calm yourself by taking slow, deep breaths, counting from 1  to 4 with each in- and out-breath, then choose a way to comfort yourself. This might be by phoning a friend, going for a walk, playing with a pet, relaxing, playing music, or writing in a  personal journal. When you feel settled and in control, you can work out what distressed you and the best way to resolve or prevent it happening again. 

• Distraction – if it’s not a convenient time to attend to your emotions, acknowledge them.  Then, when you have the time, explore the cause and find solutions. 

Our emotions reveal our values and passions, enable us to build loving relationships, and empower us to pursue our goals. Emotions also warn us about harmful people and generate protective energy. If we heed them, they guide us towards what we want and alert us to what we don’t want so we live in a way that is true to us.