Emotions are physiological states that evolved to motivate, causing a change in your body to help you react to, for example, something that may cause you harm. Fear prepares you to get away from danger, but disgust can stop you from ingesting something that may make you ill, and anger can prepare you to fight.
Dr Elaine Ryan
Page written by Dr Elaine Ryan 23 June 2021
Table of contents
- What are Emotions?
- What function do emotions have?
What are Emotions?
Have you ever been sitting in traffic, and the person behind keeps beeping their horn and gesturing for you to move faster? Your heart might have pounded, you might have noticed your brow furrowed and lips pursed if you looked in the rear-view mirror while wanting to make a rude gesture at the person behind you? This is the emotion of anger in this case.
In this example, anger occurs as soon as the driver behind beeps their horn and gesturing at you. Emotions evolved to help you respond to specific triggers; in this example, a threat. But experiencing the anger and being ready to fight may have been an appropriate response thousands of years ago. Still, reacting this way now when for example, your boss criticising you is not appropriate.
Emotions are fleeting when compared to moods. Moods can hang around. Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that emotions evolved to help people react to certain triggers in their environment. To help me explain this, I need to introduce you to the following components.
Components of an emotion
- Subjective experience
- Physiological response, and
- behavioural response.
If someone was about to eat a berry they had picked, and the berry was poisonous, the subjective experience is picking the berry.
The physiological response would screw up their nose, frowning and turning away from the berry as it came close to their mouth.
The behavioural response is closing their mouth and throwing away the berry.
This would all occur from the emotion of disgust.
If someone with a knife approached wanted to steal the berries, this is the situational experience. Faster heart rate and breathing and more energy to the muscles is the change in their physiology, to help them respond by either standing and facing the attacker or running away, the behavioural response. This is the emotion of fear.
Why is it important that you understand emotions?
Most of the work that I do, as a psychologist, is to help people regulate emotions. That means working out a normal response and allowing you to control your response if it is too much or too little. Helping someone to understand their emotions can give you steps to stop emotion from spiralling out of control. Understanding the mechanics can help you with what we call inappropriate emotions.
Understandable, appropriate and inappropriate emotions.
Whether you find that you lose your temper too quickly and can’t calm down or get too afraid to speak up in front of other people, with a bit of knowledge, you can understand why this happens and start work on changing inappropriate emotions.
What is an inappropriate emotion?
An inappropriate emotion occurs when it is too extreme or does not match the situation. It could be because of complex mental health conditions or neurological conditions, but this article explains inappropriate emotions in terms of what people come to therapy with me for, such as,
- not being able to control anger
- anxious in situations that do not warrant fear.
As already stated, all emotions are understandable, and to help you; you need to understand that they all have a function.
What function do emotions have?
All emotions have a function and an associated action or urge.
Function of fear
Fear keeps you safe from harm, giving you the energy you need to fight. The action can make you freeze.
Function of anger
Anger can occur when you are not getting what you want. Function is to energise you to fight. The action is to attack.
Function of disgust
The emotion of disgust helps you avoid getting sick or contaminated. Action is repulsion.
Function of shame
You feel shame if you think you have done something wrong. Action is to hide yourself or action rather than expose what you think you have done wrong.
They also have a tone.
Facial expressions; anger makes you clench your jaw
Your muscles reflect emotions. You get tense with fear.
Body posture changes with different emotions; might cover your face when ashamed, or cower when afraid. Shake your fist or clench them with anger.
Having a good understanding of all the components that make up emotions can show you how they all work together. Your brain can get a signal that prompts a physiological change that makes you feel anxious. You can have an anxious thought that starts a physiological change and stops you from attending an event.
These lightening reactions are significant when you are in danger but not helpful if you have an inappropriate response in a meeting with your boss. Even minor changes in one component can have a decent effect changing how you feel. It’s hard to remain angry when you lower your tone and relax your jaw, for example.
Quick experiment for you to try.
Imagine I’ve just told you you have won the lottery. I want you to say out loud in a high squeaky voice, with a massive smile on your face, that’s great; I can’t believe it, I’m so happy, I’m overjoyed.
Then repeat the experiment with a squeaky voice, but this time keep your face relaxed and do not smile. Feel the difference? That’s just one simple change!
Psychology is the study of the brain, emotions and behaviour and my aim to simplify my knowledge for you to help yourself.