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The 3 Ingredients of All Emotions

As previously noted, all emotions at their core are meant to be adaptive and are specifically trying to provide us with important information about our surroundings to assist us in navigating our worlds. Along these lines, people who struggle with emotional regulation engage in regulation “strategies” that backfire and contribute to the maintenance of the emotion (e.g., If I procrastinate for a test in response to anxiety, I feel better temporarily but this same strategy makes me more anxious long term). The “survival” facet of our emotional experiences could be “life or death” in the case of fear or anger but can also be indicative of other “deaths” such as failing a test, being prepared for a presentation, making sure finances are in order, and other probable occurrences. Considering the importance of our emotions (as illustrated in Pixar’s “Inside Out”), it would behoove us to understand what comprises our emotional experience. Though most individuals in our society focus exclusively on how they “feel,” in reality, this is only one third accurate. As such, understanding the three ingredients to our emotional experiences is the next important step in helping us manage strong emotions. Tools to manage our emotions are futile unless we initially understand the following three ingredients.

Ingredient #1: The Feeling/Physical Component “How I feel in my body”

The most obvious component of any emotional experience is the feeling/physical component or “how I feel in my body.” When asked, most individuals could easily describe their emotions based on the internal sensations in their bodies which often include heart palpitations, stomach distress, sweating, hot or cold flushes, shortness of breathe, fatigue, muscle tension, increased energy, and others. Interestingly, with the exception of sadness, many emotions have considerable physiological overlap.

For example, “feeling” excited is quite consistent with “feeling anxious” which is similar to “feeling afraid” and “feeling angry.” Ironically, when most of my clients are asked how they know the difference between various emotions since they “feel” so similar, they initially state, “well, it’s the situation.” This explanation accounts for a very small portion of the actual reason. As such, if many of our emotions “feel” so similar yet we are able to tell the difference between “feeling anxious” and “feeling angry” then what determines our ability to differentiate various emotions? The answer is arguably the most important component of any emotional experience, particularly, the “thinking” component.

Ingredient #2: The Thinking/Cognitive Component “What I say to myself”

Most people operate on a “common sense” model of emotions: an event occurs and it makes me “feel” a specific way.” This is common sense to assume that the result of an event is my emotional experience. Someone curses at me while driving and “that made me angry.” Unfortunately, the common sense model is too simplistic in explaining what actually takes place. The missing ingredient that explains the most pivotal facet of any emotion is how I interpret the situation. An event occurs, I think about the event a certain way (usually based on previous experience with similar events) and this leads to the emotional experience. A great example of this process would be the various reactions on a game show such as The Price is Right. Some contestants have their names called and you can presume what they are thinking by their reactions. For example, some contestants hug a number of complete strangers and give a ridiculous amount of high fives. Based on these behaviors, we can infer that “contestant A” is excited. However, some contestants approach contestants row as if they are preparing for a final exam that is worth 70% of their grade. We can infer that they are anxious based on direct observation of their reluctance to take their rightful places on contestant’s row. Internally, the physiological arousal is the same though their interpretations are vastly different, leading to completely different emotional experiences (e.g., “this is the best day of my life!” versus “what if I screw this up?”)

Ingredient #3: The Behavioral Component “What I do”

Perhaps the most observable but least understood component of all emotions is the behavioral component, or “what I do.” Anytime someone reports that an individual has “anger issues” they can easily describe observable action tendencies such as cursing, throwing, breaking, or other “impulsive” behaviors. However, most people typically describe behaviors as a separate process from the emotion itself, which is extremely misleading. Put another way, one would not engage in the aforementioned behaviors without the other two components being present. In other words, my behaviors are a direct reflection of my thoughts and physiological arousal associated with the situation. To use the previously noted Price is Right example, “contestant A’s” behaviors are a direct reflection of excitement: interpreting the situation as “the best day of my life” which leads to physiological arousal (heart palpitations, shortness of breathe, shakiness, etc.) which leads to dancing on the way to contestant’s row. In sum, as we become more aware of the three ingredients of our emotional experiences, we become increasingly better at managing strong emotions in difficult situations.

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