How to Understand Your Emotions

Two Parts:Examining the Nature of EmotionsRecognizing Your Emotions

What would life be without emotions? Bleak and dreary, most likely. Most people would agree that emotions, that is, the capacity to feel and to care, and not just to think, make life worth living. Scientists have come a long way to understanding what emotions are and have documented what they feel like for most people. That said, there is still much about emotions that is controversial or debated.

Part 1
Examining the Nature of Emotions

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    Learn what emotions are. Emotions are programmed responses shaped by evolution that allow you to navigate your environment in ways that were generally adaptive in the past and are probably still adaptive today. Our ancestors who had the capacity to experience emotions like fear at the sight of a cliff would have been more cautious and more likely to survive and reproduce than those without the capacity to be afraid. [1]
    • Emotions are divided into the primary categories of negative and positive. Positive emotions are those that occur when there is a potential benefit to be had, or after a benefit has been achieved. Negative emotions occur prior to or in response to situations that incur costs on you. [2]
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    Know the basic emotions. Most psychologists agree that there are a set of so-called "basic emotions" that all humans are endowed with, just like eyes, legs, or arms. The basic emotions include anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
    • Researchers have since expanded the list of emotions to include contempt, pride, shame, love, and anxiety. There may be more basic emotions than that, but the extent to which they are universally experienced or culture-specific is up for debate.[3]
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    Understand the role emotions play. Emotions are incredibly important for our survival, our ability to thrive, and our ability to make good decisions. The idea that there is a dichotomy between emotion and reason is false.[4] The way in which emotions can be seen as important for survival is best illustrated with an example:
    • Imagine you woke up one day and you didn't feel embarrassed or have any sense of shame or social anxiety. You generally did not care at all how you acted in front of other people. Chances are, you would lose all your friends if you didn't care at all about how you acted around them. That is to say the emotions, even negative emotions, are very important for our getting along with others and ultimately our survival.[5]
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    Recognize how emotions affect decision-making. Emotions are critically important toward our ability to make decisions. Emotions provide value or weight to some information, thereby biasing our decision-making in one direction or another. Several studies have found that people with lesions to parts of their brain that are involved with emotion, have impaired decision-making and in some cases impaired moral behavior.[6]
    • The most famous of these cases is Phineas Gage (PG), an individual who was involved in an accident in which a metal pole blew through his head, damaging a part of his brain involved in the processing of emotion. Miraculously, PG survived the accident although he would never be the same person again. His personality changed drastically; he displayed flat or inappropriate emotion, made horrible decisions, and was a jerk to be around. One of the main reasons for this shift was that he had damage to a part of his brain involved in emotion. [7][8]
    • One group that has trouble in society are psychopaths. Those with psychopathy are often criminal offenders. One of the key diagnostic criterion for psychopathy is a lack of emotion, something called callous-unemotional traits. It is a lack of empathy, and guilt, and lacking these emotions tends to lead to antisocial behaviors. That is to say that emotions are important for our sense of morality. [9]
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    Know that emotions can become disordered. Just as you could get a disorder of your kidneys or your eyes, your emotions can become disordered, too. If you feel like your emotions are disordered, be sure to talk to a mental health professional about treatment options. Some of the more common disorders of emotion, or mental disorders in which emotions are affected include:[10]
    • Depression, which involves persistent and long-lasting feelings of sadness and a lost of interest.[11]
    • Anxiety disorders. General anxiety disorder refers to extended and excessive worry about day-to-day happenings.[12]
    • Schizophrenia can be associated with a lack of emotions or an irritable or depressed mood.[13]
    • Mania, which generally occurs in bipolar disorder, refers to an extended period of abnormally and excessively elevated mood. Manic individuals may also be excessively and persistently irritable.[14]
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    Record when your emotions occur. Once you have a sense of when emotions arise and what they feel like, you can take notes on your emotions to further understand them as they relate to you personally. To learn more about the specific emotions you experience and what triggers them in your life, keep a log of when you feel an emotion and what you think triggered it.
    • For example, maybe you felt anger and you recalled that soon before you realized that you had to wait in line for 15 minutes for lunch and you hate waiting in lines.
    • You could use this information to increase or decrease the emotions that you want or don't want in your life. For example, if you knew what caused anger in general and for you in particular, and you didn't want to feel as much anger as you currently tend to, you could take steps to avoid situations that trigger that emotion (such as by only buying a small handful of groceries at a time so you can use the express lanes).

Part 2
Recognizing Your Emotions

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    Learn what each emotion feels like. People report that different emotions feel different subjectively. While the clearest distinction is that negative emotions feel very different than positive emotions, different negative emotions feel different from each other, also. Embarrassment feels different than sadness, which feels different from fear.
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    Learn what anger feels like. Anger is experienced when someone has wronged you in some way. It serves to dissuade them from doing so again in the future. Without an emotion like anger, people might repeatedly take advantage of you. [15]
    • Anger begins in the back between the shoulder blades and travels upward, along the back of the neck and around the sides of the jaws and head. When experiencing anger you may feel hot and flustered.[16] If you notice sensations in your back, neck, and jaws such as tension, pain, and pressure, it's likely that you've been internalizing your anger.
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    Learn what disgust feels like. Disgust is experienced toward repulsive stimuli, things that can make us physically sick; it functions to protect us from things that could make us ill. It can also be experienced when we find things metaphorically gross - like certain moral violations. [17]
    • Disgust is felt primarily in the stomach, chest, and head areas of the body. [18] You may actually feel sick or nauseous and find yourself closing off your nasal passages and moving away from the revolting stimuli.[19]
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    Understand what fear feels like. Fear is experienced in response to dangers, things like bears or heights or guns; it helps us to avoid these things in the moment and to learn to avoid them in the future.[20] Although fear is an evolved emotional response, many of the things we are afraid of are learned. However, we are more sensitive to learning fears from situations or things (such as snakes or heights) that occurred frequently over human evolutionary history than we are to recent inventions that are nonetheless much more dangerous (such as driving in a car or being around a light socket).[21]
    • Fear is felt primarily in the top half of the body, except when it involves a fear of heights it can involve increased sensation in the legs.[22] Your heart may beat faster, you may breathe quicker, your palms may feel sweaty and hot as part of your nervous system kicks into high gear; this is the so called fight or flight response.[23]
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    Know what happiness feels like. Happiness is experienced in response to things that often have implications for surviving, thriving, and passing on one's genes. Examples of things that make us happy include having sex, having children, succeeding in a valued goal, being praised by others, and being in a nice welcoming environment. [24]
    • Happiness, while being perhaps one of those most easily recognizable or well-known emotions, is also one of the most difficult to define. It can involve feelings of warmth throughout the whole body or it can involve a sense of feeling content, safe, or living the good life.[25][26]
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    Review what sadness feels like. Sadness is experienced in response to a loss that we care about. It is a very painful emotion, which may act to help us to avoid losses in the future or to appreciate what we have when we get it or them back (such as in the case of a romantic partner). [27]
    • Sadness often begins in the chest and moves upward through the throat and up to the eyes where we see tears. You've probably heard the expression "She's all choked up." Allowing yourself to cry fully can be a cleansing experience. Paying attention to the physical sensations in these areas and allowing the energy to move assists us in grieving a loss, empathizing with others' suffering and maintaining health and well-being.[28][29]
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    Know what surprise feels like. Surprise is experienced when something is unexpected but not deemed to be a threat. It is an interesting emotion in that it is relatively neutral in valence compared to the other emotions, which are more positive or negative. Surprise may function to help re-orient attention to novel unexpected things. [30]
    • Surprise is felt primarily in the head and chest. It is experienced in response to the unexpected; it can feel like a bit of a jolt.[31][32]


  • Remember that emotional experiences are short-lived, but moods can be more long-lasting. If you find yourself afraid, for example, remember that it should go away in a short amount of time.
  • Remember that emotions, even negative emotions, are normal human responses and in many cases are probably helpful to you.


  • If you are experiencing severe and/or extended emotional pain, or are noticing very drastic changes in your mood, see a mental health professional.

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Categories: Emotional Conditions