- struggle with understanding your emotions?
- feel overwhelmed or distressed and not sure why?
- have people say you are too sensitive or not sensitive enough?
- struggle with not being able to sleep?
- drink or eat too much?
- feel your life is out of control?
If you answered “yes” to any one of the above questions you may need counselling. I work with people using Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT). The aim of EFT is to identify, explore, regulate, process, transform and integrate our experiences from an emotional perspective alongside reflective processing in order to elicit deep, effective, long lasting change.
Recent research confirms that our emotions influence psychological, cognitive, behavioural, biological and neurochemical system functioning. Emotions interface between body and mind, are a primary signalling system and often arise outside of our awareness. Emotions also precede our language-based knowing.
By becoming to know ourselves from this emotional perspective we also learn to understand ourselves from a more evolutionary point of view. It helps us understand why we do what we do and gives us tools and skills to manage life in a more aware way. We learn to process upsets and master our emotions in more adaptive ways.
10 Things to know about emotions
Emotions play a central role in organizing how we feel, think and behave and are fundamentally important to our lives.
1. Why focus on emotions?
Emotions play an important role in how we feel in our environment. They tell us whether things are going our way or not. But not all emotions are the same. Some emotions are adaptive and helpful and provide directions about how to fix problems whereas other emotions are not helpful because they can create more distress and leave us feeling stuck.
Attitudes toward emotion often represent the views of significant others and can also be shaped by our early childhood experiences. There are also numerous cultural messages that also contribute to how emotions are viewed. Examples include:
- You are weak if you show your emotions
- If I ‘give in’ to my emotions then I’ll be an out of control wreck
- Emotions are only irrational reactions
- Emotions make you feminine
2. Not all emotions are equal: There are different types of emotion
There are seven Primary Emotions.
- happiness or joy
- interest, surprise, or curiosity
In the human world each primary emotion has a facial expression and this is seen across cultures and races. It is often very easy it identify when a person is angry by the expression on their face and the way they hold their body. A sad person will look forlorn, often will produce tears and may withdraw. A fearful person becomes agitated and you can see by the expression on their face that they are scared. A curious person shows eagerness and interest in their surroundings.
Primary emotion is hard-wired in our brain stem and tied to information processing that helps us adapt and survive by helping us to select and respond quickly to information that would take too long to process without an emotional action tendency. It is from these primary emotions that complex emotions evolve. Thus most of the more complex emotional expressions are combinations of the primary ones and often are complicated with cognitions. For example, guilt is a combination of anger, disgust and shame and also has cognitive components.
Adaptive primary emotions are immediate when experienced or felt, they are quick to arrive and fast to leave, they have a clear value to survival and well-being, and are the main source of emotional intelligence. Primary adaptive emotions tell us who we really are and what we are fundamentally feeling at a given moment. They tell us what’s important by providing information. They prepare us for action by providing motivation.
3. Emotions aren’t always helpful
Emotions can be thought of in different ways. Emotions can be adaptive and helpful or can be maladaptive or unhelpful. As a result of suppressing ignoring dismissing our emotions or having experienced trauma or neglect we sometimes don’t manage to regulate our emotions as well as we might like to.
Primary maladaptive emotions are when primary emotions become exaggerated or hang around and don’t dissipate. Often these are still people’s most fundamental feelings but are no longer ‘healthy’ because they interfere with effective functioning. The person is no longer able to cope constructively. These reactions can be over-learned responses, based on previous, possibly traumatic experiences thus resulting in a failure to self-regulate. When expressed these emotions are often regretted. People often feel stuck in these emotions for months or even years. They feel old and familiar. They can have a disorganising quality rendering the person feeling confused and overwhelmed without really understanding why.
Sometimes there is a kind of a layering of emotions. These are called secondary reactive emotions and are responses to or defences against a more primary emotion or thought. The person might have a reaction to their reaction or these secondary emotions tend to obscure so that real feeling is hidden. Stereotypically women who are submissive often cry when they are actually angry. Sometimes men who have difficulty showing fear or sadness often get angry. Some emotions can be secondary to thoughts. The secondary emotion can have aspects of cognition. For example shame about being fearful or guilt about outbursts of anger.
4. The malfunctioning emotion system
There are two ways in which a malfunctioning emotion system may present
If you experience too little emotion it might mean that you over-regulate your emotions. The head is in control of the heart. If so you might:
- fear losing control
- find it hard to know what you want
- find it hard to make decisions
- feel guilty, unentitled or don’t find emotions are helpful so they must be control, avoided,
- don’t know what you’re feeling
If you experience too much emotion it might mean that you under-regulate your emotions. The heart is in control of the head. If so you might:
- feel you lose control when strong feelings come up
- you become emotionally flooded and can’t make sense of what’s happening,
- feel overwhelmed,
- can’t take in the experience
- feel too vulnerable, unsafe, exposed
Usually people are generally one or the other. You can determine which one if you consider how you respond to stressful situations. When we are not at our best we tend to revert to more primary responses.
5. Emotions need to be felt
We normally use the thinking brain to problem solve but information regarding how and what we feel is accessible through activation of the emotional brain. Thinking and speaking about emotion often itself isn’t enough. Emotions need to be felt and, as such, experienced. When this happens we are moved by our emotions and we speak from emotion, making emotions accessible to change.
The reason why emotions need to be experienced is related to the different areas of the brain associated with thinking and feeling. The brain activity associated with emotions is very different from the brain phenomenon associated with thinking with its own neurophysiology and neurochemical basis. When we experience feelings the regions of the brain associated with feelings are activated. This information then becomes available to the conscious mind for reflection and meaning making. It is this combination of felt experience with meaning creation that the heart and the mind are integrated.
How do we access the feeling brain?
Asking yourself ‘what am I feeling right now?’ can be a very helpful way to start building our awareness of emotional experiencing. When asking this question we are checking in with ourselves. It is less an intellectual exercise than it is a whole-of-body process that requires awareness/attending to our bodily state, the place in our bodies where we feel our feelings: generally the throat, chest, and stomach regions of our bodies.
6. Why we react emotionally?
Emotional reactions occur for a variety of reasons and some are helpful and adaptive, keeping us safely out of harm’s way such as the sudden response of fear, whereas some are less helpful and require further understanding as they may hide the real emotion. We are biologically hardwired to experience emotion. This has been an important survival mechanism that has its origins in our evolution as a species. However, if for some reason an appropriate emotional response has not been possible at the time of an event they become “stuck” and these feelings are pushed down, avoided, or managed but continue to be reactivated and triggered until an alternative emotional response can be developed in their place.
7. Healthy emotional experience can be disrupted by trauma and childhood abuse
Healthy emotional development requires appropriate responses from our caregivers and sufficient environmental support. The emotion regulation strategies employed by our caregivers to reduce distress or to upregulate positive affect in us can impact our emotional and behavioral development, teaching us particular strategies and methods of regulation. The type of attachment style between our caregiver and us as infants plays a meaningful role in the regulatory strategies we may learn to use.
Sometimes the environment is far from adequate or sufficient and can in some instances be harmful and disruptive to emotional development. This can vary from individual instances of harm and abuse to systemic and long-term forms of neglect and abuse. The effects of trauma and childhood abuse can present significant difficulties for emotional well-being. This is due to the storage of emotional experiences in memory. In trauma, memories of distressing situations are relived over and over again and so our emotion system is not functioning properly. We become hypervigilant and feel as if the trauma is happening all the time. We live in a state of contact fear.
8. Emotions are ‘energy in motion’
We feel stuck when our emotions are malfunctioning by being unhealthy of maladaptive. There is no movement. This idea that emotions are movements and expressions of energy helps us to recognize that emotions play a central role in motivation. It gives us a raw foundation for understanding emotions as the very thing that moves or motivates us. This definition also raises some interesting questions about emotions that have a direct bearing on how we come to regard our emotions and how to deal with them.
9. We can learn how to make emotions work for us
When we can feel our feelings and don’t just talk about them we gain access to emotion’s adaptive information and action tendency. Experiencing emotions helps to clarify them. We have information about what is important to us and we are moved by our emotions to take action.
For example, when someone feels their boundaries have been violated they experience anger and this motivates protective actions and strategies and efforts to reassert boundaries. When someone is sad they seek out support and activate self-care mechanisms.
Emotions tell us whether important goals, values and needs are being hindered or advanced. Having a well-functioning emotional system means that an individual has access to this important information and can act on it in their life. Once you know what it is you are feeling and from this understand what it is you need, you can seek to act on those needs.
Primary emotions have the quality of drawing people closer, they let other people ‘see’ you, while secondary or reactive emotions have the opposite affect and tend to push people away or hold them at bay. Instrumental emotions can make people feel manipulated.
Emotions can work for us when a person asks for what they need in a way that others can hear and respond to. Having emotions responded to helps to validate them and this is likely to strengthen their productive use.
10. Emotional intelligence leads to appropriate regulation
Emotion regulation is the ability for us to tolerate, be aware of, put into words and use emotion adaptively to regulate our distress and to promote our needs and goals. Emotional intelligence is when there is a constructive relationship between the thinking and feeling of our experience and adaptive functioning involves our head and heart working together. The role of cognition in the processing of emotion is to help make sense of the emotion and help regulate it.
To emotionally regulate is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed. It can also be defined as extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions. Emotion self-regulation belongs to the broader set of emotion-regulation processes, which includes the regulation of our own feelings and the regulation of other people's feelings. Healthy emotional functioning requires us to regulate our emotions and be respectful of others.