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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

What you should know about your emotions so you can make better decisions

Our emotions are core to our experiences. Professor Ed Batista, self-coaching lecturer at Harvard University, calls emotions attention magnets: They draw on our attention, signalling that something of importance is happening to us. Let’s look at what emotions actually are.

While there is currently no consensus about how to define emotions, the Oxford English Dictionary defines them as "A strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” Emotions are feelings that are formed based on stimuli arising within us or cause by events external to us. They are an experience of feelings or arousal in the body that are created by the sympathetic nervous system. Every time we feel aroused, the sympathetic nervous system in our body mobilises energy (e.g. through stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine) to respond to the arousal. Hence, emotions are relatively acute and momentary experiences.

Emotions have three components: a trigger, the experience and a response

The first component of an emotion is a trigger: something that initiates the emotion. This can be internal (e.g. a thought) or external (the sight of a snake). Importantly, there is no physiological difference with regard to how the brain treats internal and external triggers. For example, think about the stress and fear you can feel when watching a horror movie, despite not being physically threatened. Some of these triggers are universal (i.e. they are a trigger for most people), such as when we see a fire. However, most of them are individual. For example, I feel instantly happy and calm when I’m around dogs, while someone else in the same situation might feel uneasy. The second component of emotions is the experience of them - the part where we feel something. The third is a response or reaction – either cognitive or behavioural. How quickly this response process happens depends on the type of emotion we are experiencing.

There are two types of emotions: basic and secondary

Basic emotions include anger, disgust, sadness, fear, happiness, surprise. When we feel basic emotions, the pathway to our reaction is fast. It does so to keep us alive – evolutionary, a quick response to certain triggers was important for survival.

When we experience secondary emotions, the pathway to our reaction is much slower. Secondary emotions include about all other emotions that are more complex, because they involve major cognitive appraisal. This includes emotions such as envy, pride, shame, regret, hope, confidence and so forth. Affective Scientist, Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, even goes so far as to describe emotions as wild guesses that we construct! This is because the triggers can cause millions of synapses to fire away in the brain at any one time. We then interpret them, the outcome of which determines our perceived emotions.

For example, if we are about to participate in a live event on social media and we feel a tingling feeling in our tummy, we might interpret this as feeling nervous. However, we might experience the same feeling in the tummy before we see a good friend for the first time in a long time, yet in this case, we’d interpret it as excitement.

You could say that emotions, quite efficiently, coordinate our response systems for the guidance of our behaviour. So, if we want to be able to make good decisions, we need to look at what triggers emotional responses in us, in particular those that happen fast, without much of our own thinking contribution; and, those that impact whether we are moving towards our goal or away from it.

You can do that by asking yourself these four questions:

1) What triggers your emotions?

2) What are your thoughts and beliefs about the triggers that lead to your emotions?

3) How do your emotions impact your goal attainment?

4) What can you do to avoid triggers for (unnecessary) negative emotions in the future?

You will see that your emotional triggers start with your attention: what you pay attention to will evoke an emotional reaction straight away or trigger a thought process possibly leading to an emotional response thereafter. So, it seems important to learn how to focus attention, rather than leaving it up to chance of the wandering mind, right? Focusing is something we can practice. But that is a topic for another article.

Maike x


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