Understanding emotions

Emotions or feelings are fundamental in life and they reflect our inner state. We can experience a whole range of them each day, and they can vary in intensity and pleasantness. We can also experience them differently. Emotions can be described in a word, such as ecstatic, sad, despairing, jealous or ashamed, as different from thoughts, which relate to our head-talk and are usually a string of words. Emotions don’t come from just one part of the brain. They come from throughout our brain and body (including the gut). The nervous system is constantly collecting information about our internal and external worlds and making sense of it. A ‘core affect’ (or emotional state) results, and this refers to how ‘good or bad’ we feel in a particular situation (1).

Are emotions positive or negative?

Emotions are often categorised as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, for example happiness or sadness. This categorisation has limitations, but in terms of evolution, the more negatively perceived emotions have helped us survive. As author Leonard Mlodinow states, it is useful to start with the idea that the more negative emotions, while unpleasant or distressing, are there to help us recognise conditions that are suboptimal or unsafe, and to make the necessary changes. Without them, we would have little desire to change anything!(2)

In terms of our wellbeing, there is a tendency to think that more ‘positive’ emotions we have, the better. But life has ups and downs, and the whole range of emotions help us assess our experiences in life. We also find that many of the meaningful experiences in life include some emotional challenge. These experiences, although not always pleasant, can help us grow as individuals. This is why more recent theories about wellbeing recognise the importance of meaning and also personal growth. And one reason why the term ‘negative’ emotions doesn’t always fit. As a result, we are going to refer to them as ‘distressing’ or ‘uncomfortable’ emotions.

Core emotions

Much has been written about core or basic emotions, with various models aiming to group all of the many emotions under 5 to 8 headings. Psychologist Paul Eckman proposed a series of universal emotions in humans, based on associated facial expressions, and grouping them into the basic emotions of surprise, sadness, happiness, disgust, anger and fear.(3) It has also been proposed that the basic emotions are driven by the main chemical messengers within the brain, and relate to primitive states of stress (fear, anger), punishment (sadness) or reward (joy).(4)

Recent research focussing on emotion by Social Worker and author, Brene Brown, found that hundreds of emotions and related experiences were reported. Brown concluded that in order to recognize, name and make sense of our feelings and experiences, and thereby make meaning of our lives, we have to:

  • Understand how they show up in our bodies and why.
  • Get curious about how our families and communities shape our beliefs about the connections between our feelings, thoughts and behaviour.
  • Examine our go-to behaviours.
  • Recognise the context of what we are feeling or thinking by asking; ‘What brought this on?(5)

Brown groups emotions under a range of headings. There isn’t space to mention them all here, but they include ‘places we go when’;

  • things are uncertain (for example, overwhelm, anxiety, vulnerability),
  • we compare (envy, jealousy, resentment),
  • things don’t go as planned (disappointment, regret),
  • we’re hurting (sadness, grief, despair),
  • we fall short (shame, self-compassion, perfectionism),
  • we search for connection (belonging, insecurity, loneliness),
  • the heart is open (love, heartbreak, trust),
  • life is good (joy, calm, gratitude),
  • we feel wronged (anger, disgust), and
  • places we go with others (compassion, empathy, boundaries).(6)

Distressing emotions

Understanding emotions is about being more self-aware and recognising what is happening within the mind and body, including related thoughts and behaviours. A lot of our distress comes from attempting to suppress or avoid the negatively perceived or uncomfortable emotions. However, developing awareness, rather than trying to avoid emotions, is the basis upon which we can work with them. This involves mindfulness, or paying attention in the moment, on purpose and without judgment (we are not judging the emotions as ‘good or bad’, simply observing them). It is also important to recognise that difficulties can occur when the more distressing emotions dominate, such as in anxiety, depression or with prolonged grief, loneliness or anger issues, and that there are many approaches and strategies that can assist.

Final words

Emotions give us a good deal of information and motivate change. Becoming more aware of the range of emotions, our experience of them and triggers to them is important. Becoming more mindful of them is part of this process, rather than suppressing or avoiding them. It also leads us into ways to manage more uncomfortable emotions (see Feb 2014 blog on ‘soothing uncomfortable emotions’).

[You might like to go back to earlier blogs on dealing with loss and grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness and anger. More related blogs to follow too!}]


(1, 2) Mlodinow, L. (2022). Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings, Allen Lane, UK, p 43, 35.

(3) Paul Eckman, 2015 https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/paul-ekman.html)

(4) Gu, S, Wang, F., Patel, N, Bourgeois, J, Huang, J. (2019). A Model for Basic Emotions Using Observations of Behaviour in Drosophila, Frontiers in Psychology, 10 (781).

(5, 6) Brown, B. (2021) Atlas of the Heart Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Vermilion, London, p ix, x.


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