Emotions are often called “feelings” because they create characteristic patterns of tension and sensation in the body. They are usually the motivating energy behind what you do. Emotions held over time are called “moods” and gaining influence over your moods is extremely useful.
An interesting experiment was done where volunteers had their brains briefly electro-stimulated in certain areas. In some areas, the stimulation would immediately bring up an emotion – perhaps anger or grief. Once the stimulation stopped, the emotion would also stop. If the stimulation was maintained, however, soon the person’s biochemistry would start to change and their physical body would take on the tension patterns of the emotion as well.
Emotions can begin as purely mental events. They might arise and dissipate with the speed of thought. In the brain, these are electrical events. Feelings (the biochemistry and tension patterns created by emotions), however, take awhile to show up in the body. As a consequence, when you have a feeling (a tension pattern) you know that the emotion causing it is not a fleeting thing.
Emotions occur with or without self-awareness – in fact, identifying the emotions underlying your physical feelings is a learned skill. We are not born knowing how to do this and many people never learn how to put names on their feelings. Those who do not have a habit of paying attention to their physical sensations will generally not know what they are feeling emotionally either. We say these folks “live in their heads”.
As mental events, emotions are designed to arise and dissolve relatively quickly. Fundamentally, they are valuable messengers telling you whether you are having the experience you want or not. There is always a need, desire or preference beneath the emotion that either is, or is not, being met. For example, I might notice that I am feeling tight in my body in a way that is typical of anger. If I pause and introspect about that, I might discover that I am grumpy with my wife. If I persist, I might also discover that I wanted some kind of attention from her and am grumpy because I’m not getting it. In this way, introspection leads to awareness of my unmet desire. Identifying it will predictably allow my anger to soften and I might choose to ask my wife directly for what I want rather than stewing in poorly understood grumpiness.
As in this example, once the message has been received and used to inform your behavior, often the emotion will just melt away. When you do not listen to the messengers of emotion, however, they may try getting louder or persist as moods. Emotions usually change over a couple minutes if you pay attention to them. If you perpetuate them, the biochemical consequences will become stronger and they will become a longer lasting mood. Moods generally indicate you are not paying attention to (or taking action on) your emotional responses. In this way, for example, anger will turn into the mood of resentment, fear into anxiety, and sadness into depression.
Emotions, even emotions that feel bad, contain useful information. If you want more information about your experience, then pay more attention to your emotions, even if they are “negative” or are subtle. Bad moods, on the other hand, are rarely useful and are caused by you not paying attention and acting upon the information from your emotions.
Imagine two people, Jane and Jo: they both want appreciation from their partner for spending an hour cleaning up the kitchen. Unfortunately, their partner is oblivious. Both feel disappointed and frustrated because they are not getting what they want. In Jane’s world, the disappointment and frustration messenger rings her door bell but she doesn’t answer. Jane has learned to ignore and avoid her painful feelings. The emotion tries to get the message across by increasing her physical discomfort – “maybe a migraine will help” or perhaps the messenger (emotion) just stews on the doorstep outraged that Jane’s not answering and creates a really crappy mood and negative thoughts about her partner.
Jo, on the other hand, applies the material in this blog. She pays attention when frustration and disappointment ring her bell! She takes a moment of introspection, understands what she’s not getting and asks her partner directly for some appreciation. Her partner is embarrassed for not noticing, asks her forgiveness and expresses his appreciation with a 10 minute shoulder massage.
Which person would you like to be?
Summary Ideas: Emotions arise as messengers to inform you that your needs and preferences either are, or are not, being met. If emotions endure for some time they will change your biochemistry, and create tension patterns. Pay attention to your physical feelings as information. Identify and advocate for your unmet needs, desires and preferences to avoid being trapped in uncomfortable moods.