Emotions: What They Are and What They Do For Us

Emotions are complex phenomena

Emotions involve a subjective reaction to something in the environment and we experience them as either pleasant or unpleasant. It’s pleasant to feel happy or interested, but not so nice to feel frightened or angry. There is more than a century and a half of research in a number of fields seeking to understand what goes into an emotion and how they serve us.

Most scientists agree that emotions have these four components.
*  Positive or negative feelings
*  Physiological responses, such as changes in heart rate or respiration, sweating (more formally known as a galvanic skin response), secretion of neurochemicals that are associated with things like calmness or flight, and changes in brain waves.
*  Cognitive responses (mental thinking) that cause the emotion in the first place or that accompany it
*  Goals, such as communicating our needs, influencing the behavior of others, avoiding unpleasant experiences or obtaining pleasant ones.

This tells us that emotions are a lot more than “feeling” one way or another. They have an important social function and help us have the kinds of experiences in the world we want to have.

Consider a very basic emotion a tiny infant may have: distress. Imagine a baby finding himself lyingcrying infant on some sharp-edged toy or feeling pain. The baby has a physiological response — accelerated heart beat and respiration. His crying is biologically triggered, but it serves the function of drawing attention, communicating his distress to others and thus getting an unpleasant experience fixed. Similar reactions occur in older children and adults, but with maturity, emotions get much more complex and we learn to regulate them. We also learn to interpret the emotions of others from their facial expressions and other clues, but it takes a surprisingly long time to get really accurate at interpreting these signals. (Teens are not very good at it yet!)

Why Emotions are important

* Emotions have a variety of functions. Clearly they let others know how we feel, and they can help us respond effectively to situations.

* Emotions are linked to social success. The ability to interpret the emotions of others and respond appropriately is central to good social relationships. So is the ability to express our own feelings in ways that are socially appropriate. This is often called having “emotional intelligence,” and it’s very clear that having a high “EQ” is just about as important than having a high “IQ.”

* Emotions are linked to overall mental and physical health. Depression, sadness and despondency are tied to emotions. Overall, individuals with a lot of negative feelings are much less heathy than those with more positive feelings. It’s measurable in things like stress levels, cortisol, blood pressure, vagal tone and many other markers, as well as in psychological measures. Children reared in environments with negative emotions are likely to experience stress, have trouble concentrating and may withdraw from social situations. They also have lower self esteem and less self confidence. Adults have similar reactions.

* Memories of past emotional responses help shape how people react in the future. For example, those who are successful when they make a social overture, recall the positive feeling and feel good about approaching others, They become more confident and connected. Those who are unsuccessful or rejected when they make a social overture, remember the unpleasant feelings and may become wary or withdrawn. They feel less confident and less connected.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Primary emotions emerge during infancy, some within the first few weeks after birth and some closer to 6 or 7 months. You can read about them HERE.

Secondary Emotions require some thinking and self reflection and emerge during early childhood. guiltyYoung children also begin to control or “regulate” the way the express emotions, learning what is appropriate and what is not in their society. You can find out more HERE.

In the section of teens, we discuss some late emerging skills, including interpreting emotions.

We’ll soon post another article explaining new ideas about how adults can consciously enhance their sense of emotional well-being.