What Exactly is an Emotion?

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We experience myriad emotions every day, but we seldom stop to consider: What is an emotion, anyway?

What Exactly is an Emotion?

The words emotion, feeling and mood are often used interchangeably, but they are actually quite different. Researchers continue to propose new theories of how they all function. But for now, let’s strip them down to the basics:

An emotion is a complex pattern of reactions, essentially a biochemical message issued by your brain, logging its perceptions about what’s happening within and around you.

The stimulus that triggers an emotion can be internal, like a thought or memory. Or it can be external: seeing, hearing, smelling, or sensing something familiar and comforting or unexpected and alarming.

The neurochemical messages sent from the brain through your nervous system are experienced as emotions.

Why do we need emotions? They can help us navigate our lives, helping us determine how to respond to specific situations. They can inspire good choices — and, perhaps, those not so good. They can even save our lives. A few examples:

  • The emotion of fear can help us steer away from danger.
  • The emotion of anger can ignite the fighting spirit to protect our safety or our rights. Emotions can inspire us to stand up for the rights of others, too.
  • The emotion of love can help us choose who to be close to. And it can snag a date for Saturday night every now and then.

A feeling is the result of such an emotion.

Feelings are called feelings … well, because we truly feel them. They’re similar to very physical states the body experiences — including hunger or pain.

Body sensations are an important component of feelings. Think about what happens to your body when you feel fear: Are your muscles tightened, your jaw clenched? Fighting to catch your breath? Hairs on your arms standing at attention? Those are physical evidence of fear.

Feelings also may involve interpretations, judgments, or assumptions about what’s going on around us, shaped by experience or something we’ve learned.

For example, you might see a dog and experience the emotion of fear. Your interpretation or assumption – wait, I was once chased by a snarling dog just like that one! – would be that the animal could harm you.

I, however, might have a very different subjective response. I might experience happiness, a sensation of excitement, or an increase in energy. My interpretation – I grew up with dogs and I love them! – is that this is going to be fun!

Moods can involve both emotions and feelings, but are longer-lasting.

Emotions are our initial, immediate reactions to events. Most emotions last just a few moments, some mere seconds.

It’s how we interpret, respond to, and feed emotions that keep them hanging around, extending into a mood.

One way to think of it: A mood is a more persistent state of feeling. It has come to stay for a while.

Our emotions influence how we view and respond to our world. They can be useful and life affirming; they can even help drive us to achieve our goals. They can also be disruptive, distracting, or even painful. Nonetheless, they’re a big part of what we’ve experienced and who we are.

If you are interested in increasing your emotional literacy, click here for a free handout and worksheet.