Understanding emotions and feelings

Q: What is the purpose of having emotions?
A: Emotions motivate us, they make us want to do things

Imagine not having any emotions: how would you decide what's important and what's not? Our emotions help to guide our decisions. For example

  • Imagine putting your face in a pile of rubbish. What did you feel? Does it seem like a good idea?
  • Imagine eating your favourite food? What does that feel like? Does it seem like a good idea?

Emotions give us a quick 'gut feeling' about whether something is a good or bad idea. At a very basic level they tell us something is worth approaching or avoiding.

This really matters in a problem like depression. Put simply, when we are depressed our emotions are telling us that nothing is important. We feel tired, hopeless, and any activity can seem pointless. The problem is that if we feel that nothing is important we do less, and then fewer good things happen to us, which can in turn make us feel even worse.

Emotions also matter in problems like anxiety. With anxiety our emotions are telling us that something is frightening, so we tend to avoid it. But avoidance tends to come with consequences too: and often these unintentionally keep our anxiety going.

There is no such thing as a 'good' or 'bad' emotion - they all serve a purpose. We might like or dislike certain emotions, though, especially if they come at inappropriate times.

Different emotions motivate us to do different things

Emotions make us want to act:

Joy or Happiness (motivates us to) approach, join in, take part, share  Fear (motivates us to) run away  Sadness (motivates us to) withdraw, brood  Anger (motivates us to) lash out, attack, stand up for ourselves  Shame (motivates us to) hide away  Disgust (motivates us to) withdraw, keep a distance, try to get clean  Compassion, Empathy, or Sympathy (motivates us to) offer comfort, take care of ... , be with ...

Body feelings are associated with different emotions

As human beings we don't just feel emotions in our heads, we feel them with our bodies too.

We feel emotions in our bodies

One research study asked over 700 people to rate where in their body they felt different emotions.

We feel emotions in our bodies

Figure adapted from: Nummenmaa, L., Glereana, E., Riitta Hari, R., Hietanend, J. K. (2014). Body maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press. Copyright 2014 National Academy of Sciences USA

Things to do

Practice telling the difference between thoughts and feelings

Use this to practice identifying the difference between thoughts and feelings