Emotions are a fundamental part of the human experience. They shape how people think, behave and make decisions, playing a role in every relationship. Better understanding our emotions helps us navigate life and build stronger connections; however, they can be challenging to manage and confront after trauma.
This two-part blog series will explore emotions, how they work, the different types, and the strategies for managing and reconnecting with them.
What Are Emotions?
Emotions are psychological states that involve a wide range of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive responses. They are triggered by both internal and external events and cause feelings that can be both pleasurable and distressing.
Although scientists still do not fully understand how emotions work, research has been conducted into how the brain responds when people experience different feelings. One study found that several areas may be involved in regulating and managing emotions:
- The amygdala – A central part of the limbic system, the amygdala plays a prominent role in recognising emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger in other people’s faces.
- The hippocampus – A small structure located next to the amygdala, the hippocampus governs memory function and recall. It plays a role in consolidating emotional memories and linking them to specific contexts.
- The prefrontal cortex – This brain area is vital for regulating emotions and helps control impulses.
- The hypothalamus – Located at the base of the brain, the hypothalamus helps regulate the autonomic nervous system and coordinate responses to emotional stimuli, such as changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
These regions work together to process emotional information and prompt an appropriate response. There are thousands of reactions humans can have, and researchers have identified six key areas that everyone experiences.
The Six Basic Emotions
Countless emotions influence people’s lives. In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman identified six basic emotions hardwired into the human brain. However, these are not the only feelings to exist – one 2017 study documented twenty-seven categories of emotion.
Feelings of hopelessness, disappointment, grief, and disinterest characterise sadness. Most people experience it from time to time, although some can experience severe periods of sadness that may be diagnosed as depression. People may withdraw from loved ones and experience fatigue and lethargy when feeling sad.
Happiness is the emotion that most people aspire to. When people are happy, they often feel content, grateful, and joyful. Humans commonly express happiness through facial expressions, such as smiling, tone of voice, and relaxed and open body language.
Happiness affects the body, not just the brain. Being happier lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and boosts the immune system, reducing the risk of people catching colds and chest infections. However, happiness can be threatened by factors such as stress, anxiety, trauma, depression, and loneliness.
Disgust can stem from many scenarios, such as smelling something unpleasant or tasting food that has gone bad. Scientists theorise that it evolved as a reaction to things that could be harmful to humans to eat.
When people are disgusted by something, they may turn away or experience a physical reaction such as retching. However, people can also experience moral disgust when they observe others engaging in behaviours they consider immoral or distasteful.
Fear is a powerful emotion associated with uncertainty, anxiety, and possible harm. When people face a dangerous situation, such as being mugged, their sympathetic nervous system is activated, and they go through a fight-or-flight response. During this response, the body redirects energy to the muscles, and the mind becomes more alert.
After a traumatic, dangerous situation, feelings of fear can be hard to shake. The fear response can become dysregulated, resulting in people experiencing persistent fear and anxiety even in non-threatening situations. The fear response can also be triggered by something that reminds people of the traumatic event.
Surprise is an emotion that can be good, bad, or neutral. When a car backfires on the street, it can be an unpleasant surprise, but a surprise party thrown by friends is exceptionally pleasurable.
Feelings of surprise are often brief and cause a physiological reaction. People may flinch, jump, or gasp when they are startled. It can also activate the fight-or-flight response, providing a burst of adrenaline that quickly fades once the surprise does.
Anger is characterised by feelings of hostility, frustration, and agitation. Like fear, anger can play a part in the fight-or-flight response. People can experience a physiological reaction, such as sweating or turning red, as the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear.
Unchecked anger that is not dealt with healthily can make it difficult for people to make rational decisions and impact physical health. However, it can also be constructive, motivating people to take action and confront things that bother them.
These are only a few feelings people experience daily. There are a variety of emotions, including:
The Importance of Understanding Emotions
Emotions play a fundamental role in how we experience the world. They shape our experiences and even play a part in memory – it’s much easier to remember events with a strong emotional impact.
Understanding emotions and how they work can help us to manage them better. Although feelings of anger, sadness, and fear are normal, if they persist and remain unmanaged, they can be incredibly damaging to physical health, mental health, and our relationships. By learning to identify and understand them, people can develop and improve skills such as:
- Improved relationships – Better emotional intelligence encourages better personal and professional relationships, improving communication and empathy as well as providing healthy ways to manage conflict.
- Better decision-making – Emotionally intelligent individuals can better use their emotions to guide their thoughts and behaviour, leading to better decision-making. They can consider the impact of their decisions on themselves and others and make choices that align with their values and goals.
- Increased resilience – Emotional intelligence is also associated with increased resilience, the ability to bounce back from stress and adversity. People with high emotional intelligence tend to cope better with stress, recover from setbacks, and learn from their experiences.
However, trauma can significantly impact our emotions and how we perceive them. It can intensify everything we feel or numb it entirely, making it hard to connect with our feelings at any particular time. In our next blog, we will explore how trauma can dysregulate emotions and strategies we can use to attune ourselves to them.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Cowen AS, Keltner D. Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114(38):E7900-E7909. doi:10.1073/pnas.1702247114
 Costanzo ES, Lutgendorf SK, Kohut ML, Nisly N, Rozeboom K, Spooner S, Benda J, McElhaney JE. Mood and cytokine response to influenza virus in older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2004 Dec;59(12):1328-33. doi: 10.1093/gerona/59.12.1328. PMID: 15699534.
 Kozlowska K, Walker P, Mclean L, Carrive P. Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015;23(4):263-87. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065
 Gottlieb MM. The Angry Self: a Comprehensive Approach to Anger Management. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Co.; 1999.