Mind Your Mind: What are emotions?

In my opinion, emotional literacy is an important skill to have, especially when it comes to taking care of our mental health. Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand and express our emotions. Being self-aware and knowing how to manage our emotions is key because it can help us learn how to listen to our body, reducing our stress in the process. When it comes to emotional literacy, there are a few terms that can be confusing, so I’ve explained some of the main concepts below.

Emotions: a full system response

To give a brief history, from counsellor Scott E. Spradlin’s book Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life, “... the word emotion itself comes from the Latin exmovere, and means to move out, agitate, or excite. This is where our English word ‘motion’ comes from, and of course you can see the connection with the word ‘emotion.’”

Emotions are conceptualized as a full system response, which essentially means that when you experience an emotion, a biological complex is activated. In other words, when you experience an emotion, your whole body lights up. It affects all of the different systems in your body (e.g. neurochemical activity, nervous system, respiratory and circulatory system, etc.).

Oftentimes, people believe that emotions are synonym words for feelings, but that’s not the case. Emotions are much more encompassing. You can feel the emotion of anger, but you can also feel cold or hungry — and those feelings aren’t emotions per se.

Thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations

When you experience an emotion, Spradlin says there are “... thoughts, feelings and a disposition to act.” This essentially means that when you experience an emotion, there is a psychological component —thoughts, cognition, and thinking patterns — as well as a physiological one — physical urges to do certain actions and bodily sensations.

It’s important to note that many physical sensations can be associated with different emotions at different times, depending on the context. For example, having ‘butterflies’ in your stomach can mean that you are experiencing nervousness, and at other times it can mean you are experiencing love. Crying is a sensation that is sometimes tied to sadness and other times joy.

Another key point to remember is that you cannot have emotions without having thoughts and vice versa. It is an integrated system, so essentially, thoughts and emotions are fused. All of these components are mutually interdependent. Your cognition affects your emotions and your automatic emotional states affect your thinking processes as well as brain activity.

Emotions vs. Mood vs. Affect

We’ve all experienced being in a “good” or “bad” mood. Moods and emotions are often words used interchangeably, but there is a clear distinction between the two.

Moods are essentially, according to Spradlin, “... emotions that stick around for a really long time” — sometimes too long. When moods become predominant, they can become mood disorders, such as a major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

As a result, moods often encompass a wide range of feelings. For example, a person experiencing a depressed mood (sometimes for weeks, even months) will often experience a wide range of emotions during that time frame, such as sadness, shame and anger. An anxious mood might encompass emotions such as a fear, anger and guilt.

Moods sometimes can lack a contextual stimulus, whereas emotions are often directed at someone or something, meaning that emotions are caused by a specific event.

For example, a co-worker criticizes your work and in the moment, you feel an emotion — anger — towards them. Since emotions are short-term, you might feel angry for a few minutes, then continue on with your day. But then, as your day goes by, you notice that you’re in a “bad, low mood” for no specific reason, and this goes on for hours, even days. In this case, the cause of your low mood is general and unclear.

The main point to remember is that emotions are more fleeting, whereas mood states last for an extended period of time. Intense emotions come and go fairly quickly, but moods can stick around for hours, days or even weeks.

Finally, in psychiatry, there is a difference between mood and affect. Affect is what you convey and what is observable to others, whereas moods are subjective and an internal experience.

A “flat affect” is condition where a person barely displays any emotional expression, even when the situation calls for it. For example, a person with a “normal” affect will smile brightly when they experience something that pleases them. A person with a flat affect under the same circumstances, however, might not show facial expressions and respond with a monotonous voice.

It’s important to remember that affect does not reflect a person’s mood or subjective internal experience. For instance, even if a person is not conveying any emotional response, they may actually be feeling great on the inside!

Another example is ‘inappropriate affect.’ This reminds me of myself when I am put in difficult, stressful situations. Some people will display an inappropriate affect as a defence mechanism when attending funerals. They may be caught giggling or laughing, but on the inside, they are really feeling devastated.

Emotion states vs. Emotional traits

When we talk about emotional states, it refers to the moment we say ‘I feel angry.’

An emotional trait, on the other hand, is more enduring and characteristic of a person. It’s not an emotion, but a disposition/ tendency to react to a certain emotion more often than others. An individual might be referred to as an “angry” “sad” or “happy” person.

Putting it all together

It can be hard to distinguish the difference between all of the concepts explained above. A main takeaway, however, is understanding that emotional states, traits and moods are all related. Here’s a few examples from Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life.

State: Love

Trait: loving/caring

Mood: euphoria

State: fear

Trait: fearful

Mood: anxiety

State: anger

Trait: angry

Mood: irritable

Finally, it’s important to remember that we experience emotions for a reason. Emotions serve many purposes, and ultimately, they allow us to survive and thrive in an ever changing environment. Next time, we will explore the function of emotions, the importance of naming and understanding them, and the challenges that can arise during that process.