4 Principles to Understanding Emotions

Emotions 101

“How does that make you feel?”  This is the standard question that we always imagine counselors asking.  It’s simple and often the answer seems frustratingly obvious, but as a counselor I still find myself needing to ask it.  The reason is, that we are not always as aware of our emotions as we think.  Our culture offers us many ways to avoid, deny, and numb our emotions and we are generally told that “bad” emotions aren’t acceptable.  

What Does the Bible Say?

This is especially true for Christians who have sometimes been taught that emotions lead to bad behavior resulting in denial of strong emotions, especially the “bad” ones like anger, sadness, or anxiety.  Often these are seen as a sign of not trusting God, when in reality these emotions make us aware of our need to rely on God.  Many of David’s Psalms being with laments of confusion and despair only to end in renewed trust in God.  While scripture has plenty to say about some of the actions we might make as a result of our feelings, God has no problem with emotions themselves.  This distinction between emotion and bad behavior is seen in Ephesians 4:26 where it says “in your anger, do not sin”.  The anger is not the issue; the wrong action that might follow anger is the issue.  

Sometimes in trying not to do bad things we avoid “bad” feelings, but the reality is our inability to acknowledge and engage our emotions is often what actually leads to our problems.  In order to keep our emotions from getting the best of us we need to learn how to recognize them.  These are a few basic principles about emotions that will help you know what you are feeling.

4 Principles to Understanding Emotions

1. You can “turn them off” but when you do you turn them all off.  To say you can turn off your emotions is to say you can avoid them, numb them, and deny them in many different ways.  None of these really turns them off, but it keeps them at a far enough distance so that you can get through your day mostly unaware of what you feel.  The problem is, that when you turn off the “bad” emotions you also turn off the “good” ones.  Emotions are like a kitchen sink where you can’t control the water temperature, you can only turn the faucet on or off.  The result is that when we numb the things we don’t want to feel like sadness and anxiety we also numb happiness and calm.  The goal then is to learn to tolerate the emotions we don’t want so we can feel the ones we do want.      

2. Emotions are physical.  We tend to think of our emotions as being in our minds, but the reality is we experience our emotions in our bodies.  Anxiety comes with a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath.  When we’re sad we feel tired.  In the same way when we’re happy our muscles feel loose and when we feel peaceful there’s a stillness to our bodies.  When we disconnect from our emotions, we disconnect from our bodies. One way of figuring out what we’re feeling is to notice what sensations are happening in our bodies.  Pay specific attention to breathing, muscle tension, and physical reactions to tune in to what you’re feeling.  

3. Emotions are reactions.  A car pulls in front of us on the road and we feel a surge of adrenaline as our muscles tighten to react.  We feel angry.  Our spouse tells us good news and we smile and feel a rush of excitement in our chest.  We feel happy.  We remember a failure from our past and our shoulders drop as we let out a deep sigh.  We feel regret.  Emotions are reactions to our experiences in the past, present, and future.  More specifically,  they are reactions to the thoughts we have about these experiences.  If you’re driving to a job interview and think you’re a good fit for the position you will likely feel confident.  If you don’t think you’re a good fit, you will likely feel anxious.  The emotions you’re feeling while driving are shaped by how you think about the interview, specifically your expectations and predictions of the outcome.  How we interpret events of the past and make sense of the present also have profound effects on the emotions we feel in relation to these experiences.  One way of figuring out what we’re feeling is to recognize what types of thoughts we’re having when we have a strong emotion.  It’s important to ask what story we’re making up in our head about certain experiences as this will influence our emotional reaction.  

4. Emotions create an urge to do something.  When a zebra sees a lion lurking in the tall grass he has a thought (correctly) that this is a threat and his body reacts by shooting adrenaline through his system, speeding up his heart rate, and pumping blood to his legs so that he can run away to safety.  What he most likely feels is fear, and this fear urges him to run.  His emotion is trying to tell him something, and in this case, his emotion serves him well.  

While our minds are much more complicated than a Zebra’s, the process is similar.  Our emotions are trying to help us by giving us urges to take action.  Fear says to run.  Anger says to fight.  Happiness tells you to get more of the thing that made you happy.  These are just a few examples and each person’s emotional action urges are different depending on their experiences.  

The difficulty for us is that our emotions are trying to help us respond, but sometimes what they’re urging us to do is not actually helpful, and when we are unable to control unhelpful urges it causes problems.  We have likely performed these unhelpful behaviors so often they have become a bad habit, and seem to happen automatically.  The goal is to create more space between an emotion and the action it urges us to take, so we can ask ourselves, is really the course of action that will be the most helpful?

We often view healthy people as being able to exercise self- control despite their emotional urges.  However, healthy people don’t do this by ignoring their emotions.  The key is, to tune into what we are feeling. Only by being fully aware can we understand our unhelpful urges, and make wise decisions.

Next Steps:

The next time you find yourself unsure about troubling emotions or actions you take that you don’t understand, ask yourself “What am I feeling?”

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