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What am I feeling 1: What are emotions?

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This article offers an explanation of what emotions are and why they are important for us to live fulfilling lives.


In the early days of Western and experimental psychology emotions were seen as little more than a nuisance factor that got in the way of the important stuff - thoughts. However, this perception has changed and emotions are now seen as fundamental to our survival as human beings. Difficulties in understanding and responding to our emotions is at the heart of most mental health problems.

Neuroscience research suggests emotions have a biological basis in the limbic system (see The Three-Part Brain) and come with changes in physiological states in the body. These changes include things like changes in our automatic functions like blood flow and breathing. It is thought that different emotions come with various configurations of experience. For example, when we feel safe and content our breathing, heart rate and thoughts slow down, our attention becomes lighter and our bodies generally feel relaxed and we are motivated to rest and connect.

There are many models of emotions however most psychologists would agree that emotions share these two components:

  1. They influence and can be influenced by our bodily and mental experiences (thoughts)

  2. They play a crucial role in motivation and behaviour


Emotions often arise in response to some kind of situation or event (that can be internal or external). For example, if the cat does something sweet or funny that might trigger an emotional response of amusement. This changes my body state and mental state to one of being happy, which might also lead to me thinking about all the other times the cat has been cute and how pleased I am she’s here.

Alternatively, I might walk in to find the cat using the toilet in the neighbours’ vegetable patch. This might trigger feelings of fear/anger as I start to have thoughts of the neighbours catching her in the act, or getting angry with me for the cat pooping in their veggie patch (notice it’s not the cat’s relieving herself that leads to the emotional reaction it’s my thoughts/beliefs about the implications of her doing this!).

What follows, depends on lots of other factors such as my state of mind, how strong my feelings are, who else is around, and how much time I think I have to do something as in response to the situation. Similarly, my feelings might make it easier to think about all those other times she toileted outside of her litter tray and I might even start imagining a better life without her! This is because my angry feelings have been linked with my previous experiences of the cat’s ‘naughty’ behaviour (Nature of Thoughts 2).

What the example illustrates is that when a situation occurs, there is an initial (feeling, thinking and bodily) reaction  which depending on my reaction motivates me to act in one way or another. The process we have outlined here happens so quickly that we barely even notice. However, with attention we can learn to notice these responses, and with practice, we can learn to slow them down in order to give our emotions and thoughts enough time to talk to each other to make better decisions.

Related pages

What am I feeling 2: Your emotions are a superpower

What am I feeling 2: Your emotions are a superpower

Bringing it together: Primary and secondary experience

Bringing it together: Primary and secondary experience

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