Emotions: All you need to know and how to use them in your favor

4 December 2015

Emotions: All you need to know and how to use them in your favor

Do you get angry when you're hungry? Do you shout at your spouse even before you realize how upset you feel? Do you anticipate going to your job with dread and overwhelm? Do you feel happy or sad when you smell a perfume that reminds you of your childhood? Do you like to escape from it all by browsing too many websites on the omnipotent Internet?

You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
― BrenĂ© Brown

Emotions are the number one motivator of our behavior. They are the source of overworking, overeating, spending too much time playing computer games or watching excessive amounts of porn. They stand behind alcoholism and drug addictions. They cause our anxieties, depressions, and general life dissatisfactions. They're able to ruin our physical health.

We must learn to understand our emotions, so we can achieve a happy, balanced, financially successful, and fulfilled life.

Do you want to gain control over yourself?

Read on or select a particular section you would like to learn about.

Table of Contents

Where do our emotions come from?

Scientists have been battling the topic in a never ending crusade. The origins of emotions are not completely deciphered.

Emotion creation is a complex psychophysiological occurrence in the body. Mainly through our nervous and neuroendocrine systems.

In other words, our thinking mind and our biological machine of a body are working together with a precision of the universe. Millions of processes rush through our bodies in a blink of an eye. In its speed, they elude us. We feel and we act.

What is an emotion and how is it created? The most difficult question you can ask. Sadly science is failing to answer this question in a united voice.

However, scientists agree that emotions have a multifaceted nature.

The emotion process involves a subjective experience, physiological responses of the body, and behavioral as well as expressive responses.

emotions process model, Gross and Thompson, 2007

This model is recursive. It means that any one type of emotional response can generate an entirely new emotional experience.

The emotion process is already complex, and yet semantics and our cognition further complicate it.

The importance of emotions

We live in a modern world with a brain that has kept its primeval qualities, such as the fight and flight reaction to a threat.

Does it complicate our modern lives? Sure, we can overreact, react inappropriately, or underreact all of which can send a wrong message and ruin our relationships.

Nevertheless, our nervous system is critical in ensuring our essential needs are met.

In the past, fast reactions to our emotions were important. They ensured our survival and for the same reason, we experience more negative emotions such as fear, anger, disgust and sadness.

 importance of emotions

All in all emotions keep us alive, healthy, morally accountable, and they play a vital part in our social interactions.

A baby creates a strong emotional attachment to their parenting figures, without them the baby will fail to thrive and eventually dies. Due to our fears, we avoid a bad neighbourhood or pay more attention when crossing a busy road. We feel guilty when we lie which makes us less likely to do it again. We feel what other people feel, and we're compassionate.

Emotions are also important in memory creation. They can either impair or help our memory depending on the memory task. Our brain stores emotional memories often at the expense of other information, but we can recall these memories with better clarity than the ones that are not colored with emotion.

Above all emotions play a major part in decision making. All our decisions, even the one's that we believe are logical, arguably arise from our emotions, consciously and non-consciously.

When we feel grateful, we are more likely to donate. When we feel compassion, we are more likely to care for others. And when we feel unsure and anxious, we may take the safer route over a potentially more lucrative one.

If you possess the right set of values, emotions can push you into creating positive changes for yourself and the world.

Making sense of our emotions and emotional needs

 the 6 basic emotions

Generally emotions are divided into basic and complex, positive and negative.

We feel basic emotions automatically even before thinking gets involved. Each basic emotion has a unique facial expression recognized globally. They are fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy and surprise.

Complex emotions are mixtures of different emotions. They are colored or created by our thoughts. For example pride, guilt, shame, and embarrassment.

Our basic emotional needs include the need for security, attention (to give and receive it), autonomy and control, emotional intimacy, being part of a wider community, privacy, status within social groupings, competence and achievement, meaning and purpose.

TEST: How well are your innate emotional needs being met? 

Being aware of and attending to our emotional needs is important for living a balanced and satisfying life.

We all have the same physical and emotional needs but the necessity for a certain need vary. I may have a strong need to achieve mastery, Amy can have a strong need to be socially connected while Bill is longing for honesty and admiration. Amy also has a need to achieve mastery, but she may not have such a strong desire to fulfil this need.

The calibre and ranking of our needs are important and unique to us. It's best if we don't assign our unique needs to our partner, children or passers-by and treat everyone with respect of their individualism.

Meet the hurdles

Making sense of our emotions is not an easy thing to do, in fact, it is possibly one of the most difficult tasks. A lot of factors can make it very problematic.

At times, we can feel more than just one emotion, and they can be contradictory. For example, we can feel happy and sad at the same time, or we can feel fearful and curious at the same time. Or we can be angry, in pain and love all at the same time! There is no limit to this.

In certain situations some emotions, anger, in particular, can make it difficult to identify the underlying soft feelings, such as hurt and fear.

Other times we absorb other's emotions, and for a sensitive person it can be hard to establish where her emotions end and others' start.

Emotions can be part of our habits. We learn to react a certain way in certain situations. We may condition ourselves, through repetitive thought patterns and behavior into believing that our job is stressful. Then every time we go to work our body gets tensed, we sweat, and we feel awful, and it happens even if we don't expect a stressful day at work.

We can get irritated and angry at something our partner said, although rationally we know he didn't mean it in a hurtful way, and we proceed to argue about it. If we do it enough times, we'll be wired to look for any signs of threat in our relationship, and reactivity will become a habit.

Repressed emotions. After a traumatizing event, our mind can suppress negative emotions. Imagine our mind as a maze with many doors of different sizes. Repressed emotions and traumatic memories hide in a far away room that has a very tiny door. Although, they are hidden far away, they are still there and have control over our behavior. The sad part is, we don't realize that repressed emotions trigger our behavior and are the cause of our physical problems.

Another problem is over-identifying with our emotions. We may often say things such as “I am depressed.” “I am sad.” “I am lonely.” This is not a problem of English language, as we express ourselves this way across many different languages. But we are not our feelings. A better way to address them is to simply say “I feel sad.” “I feel depressed.” Even better way is to say “In this moment I feel sad.” “This situation makes me feel angry.”

Projection and blaming. Sometimes we find it easier to assign our negative emotions to other people, so we don't have to deal with them ourselves. This way we can get rid of them and avoid them.

Also, we can't forget all the neurological and emotional disorders that can impair people's abilities to recognize and regulate emotions.

Recognizing emotions and feelings

Although we don't have much control over what gets us emotional, we can make some changes in our reactions and behaviour. The first step to take some control back from our emotions is to be aware of them.

Mindfulness becomes a necessity in recognizing our emotions.

According to Ph.D. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in a present moment non-judgmentally as if your life depended on it.

We can pay attention to our behaviors, our thoughts, body posture, body reactions, a tone of voice, and facial expressions.
Mindful of your emotions
Becoming aware of our behaviors can help us to recognize emotional triggers better.

When we see a visually appealing picture of a hamburger and fries, our emotions arise. On a cognitive level, we know that eating unhealthy food is bad for us, nevertheless our emotions can trick us into eating it. In this example, the behavior was looking at a picture, we can recognize the trigger and examine the following emotions. The same would apply when we smell a warm chocolate croissant. If you can't seize the moment prior of acting on your emotions, it's okay to catch yourself after and evaluate from there. It's a start to understanding how our emotions alter our behavior.

Cognitive interpretations transform and complicate the emotion process. Paying attention to our thoughts can reveal a lot about what we may assess as negative or positive. Our thoughts can manifest in different ways. It is the ever-present commentator voice of our consciousness, it is the flashing images. It is the quiet, subtle, and elusive nudge.

Our thoughts play a big part in the way we feel. Depression and other mood disorders make it very hard to see the positive in things and our thinking gets progressively more negative.

One way to tune into our thoughts better is to practice formal (meditation) and informal (wash the dishes to wash the dishes, brush your teeth to brush your teeth, having a shower and feeling the water on the skin...) mindfulness. Just being in a quiet room for 30 minutes each day doing nothing without any distractions can have a great benefit on our awareness, attention span and focus.

Turning our attention inward and focusing on the way emotions manifest through our physical reactions can not only reveal the specific emotion but also its intensity.

When experiencing anxiety before an important presentation our palms sweat, our stomach squelches, our feet are restless. When we fall in love, we say we have butterflies in our stomach. When we get angry our heart beat speeds up, pupils dilate, we get hot and can feel the blood rushing into our face. All these examples are our bodily reactions to the emotional event.

To notice our body posture, facial expression or tone of voice, we need to step outside of ourselves and see ourselves from a perspective of someone else.

Slouched shoulders, head down, crossed legs or arms, the way our feet point, the way we turn toward other people all reveal our underlying emotions.

Interestingly studies show that when we modify our body posture and facial expressions to reflect an emotion, we start to feel the emotion.

Emotion regulation

Emotion regulation plays a crucial role in our daily lives. 

What is emotion regulation?

The process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their emotions.

There are many ways we regulate our emotions on an unconscious level. We overeat, overwork, spend too much time on the Internet, we drink alcohol and take drugs. We worry and we're in denial. We constantly seek distractions from our emotions and instead of feeling them, we run away from them, avoid them, hide from them. It is in itself emotion regulation. Emotion regulation that has broken off astray.

Not only that we are able to regulate our own emotions, but we can use other people as external emotion regulators. This type of emotion regulation is called social emotion regulation, and it is imperative to our relationships and social life.

It also means that we can regulate emotions of other's which is especially important for our children, as they don't have the skills to regulate their own emotions.

If we regulate our emotions in the right way, we can enhance our well-being, our relationships and performance.

Negative emotional experiences will no longer have control over our lives.

Healthy emotion regulation is a skill that can be developed, and like any other skill it takes time and practice.

Some of the skills of emotion regulation include the ability to tolerate and accept uncomfortable feelings, good communication skill and assertiveness, and the ability to know how to soothe ourselves in a healthy and compassionate manner.

The best tactics and exercises for regulating emotions the healthy way

 emotion regulation

Labelling your emotion

Could it be so simple? Yes, it certainly is. Labelling a specific emotion reduces its intensity and impact.

Label the right emotion and its intensity as soon as you start feeling it. It is good to have a varied vocabulary with feeling words.

When you feel angry, try to say to yourself: "I feel angry right now." or "I feel furious right now."

We must not confuse it with discussing and analyzing the emotion or the event that lead to us feeling that way. Over-analyzing will bring us back to the event and aggravates the same feelings over and over which doesn't reduce but intensifies the emotion.

Healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle has a positive effect on our emotional well-being and makes our lives and emotions more stable. Eating healthy meals, exercising and sleeping well are important in order to keep our emotional well-being in check.

Next time you go for another cup of coffee, cake or glass of wine, think how it makes you feel after. Is the short moment of enjoyment worth it?

Make it simple for yourself to reach your goals. For example, keep healthy snacks in places where they're easy to reach and use smaller plates to eat from. Find an exercise that you think is fun to do. Set a reminder to take a break from work and do a few stretching exercises. Before you go to bed write down a list of things that need to be done the next day, that way you clear the space in your head and you will think less about it while trying to fall asleep. Sleep in a cool bedroom with minimal artificial lighting.

Cognitive reappraisal

The idea is to change you response to a certain emotion by reinterpreting the meaning of the situation that elicited the emotion. In other words, it means changing one's perspective and cognitively reinventing the world around us.

For example, somebody in the cafeteria spills a coffee on your brand new shirt.

You may start thinking “The person did it on purpose!” “They are so clumsy.” “They are horrible.” which will make you feel angry and upset, and most likely it will create a negative memory towards the person that spilled the coffee on you.

Or you interpret it as an accident. You may start to blame yourself and be sorry for yourself “I always happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” “What a shame my new shirt is ruined now.”

Now imagine you start to think “It's okay, the shirt was not such a perfect fit after all.” “It is a great opportunity to buy a new shirt.” “I think I buy another cup of coffee for the person that spilled it on me, surely she must feel awful.”

Cognitive reappraisal is not about creating lies about the situation. Notice that there is truth to all of the thoughts one may have under the circumstances. It is the selection of the thoughts that matters. Reappraisal is about thinking in a way that brings a new perspective on the situation which makes us feel less angry and more grateful and less personally involved.

Practising cognitive reappraisal has long-term benefits. It improves our relationships, helps us to cope with stress better, increases positive emotions and decreases physiological responses.

Expressive writing

Writing about our experiences in a particular way has positive effects not only on our emotional wounds but also on the physical ones.

The important part of expressive writing is to write coherently about the way we feel. It requires to search deep and go far to reveal our soft and underlying emotions about our traumatic experience from the past. The writing should be personal, meaningful and emotional.

What you write is only for you and nobody else, you can destroy it after or keep it in a safe place.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with emotions and can no longer continue writing, it's okay to stop.

 Pennebaker writing project

There are many long-term benefits to expressive writing, although in the moment or right after we may feel that our mood has worsened.

Some of the benefits include improved immune system, reduced blood pressure, feeling of greater psychological well-being, improved working memory, improved grades and sporting performance, and many more.


Acceptance means to take and hold our emotions as inevitabilities that have no inherent power to harm us, experiencing thoughts as thoughts and not realities, and acknowledging memories as memories and not descriptions of the reality past or present.

We can't get rid of our negative emotions. They were here from the start, they are here, and they are here to stay.

Trying to suppress negative emotions doesn't work. In the moment, it seems it works but few hours later the emotion comes back even stronger.

The defense is to accept.

If you feel it coming, let it come.

What if anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, pain aren't a problem? What if what our thoughts make us believe about our anxiety, anger, fear, pain aren't the truth?

Sitting quietly with our thoughts, and emotions and their physiological manifestations without reacting to them, judging them and giving in to them is a powerful exercise.


Art is an essential part of human existence. It's the key ingredient to what makes us humans, soul and mind. Creativity is the basic urge we experienced as cavemen or as children and it keeps us connected with our deeper emotions.

Art whether it'd be poetry, writing, dancing, painting, drawing, photography, making music or other creative activities is yet another way to express and give meaning to our emotions in a healthy manner. Creativity reaches beyond spoken word and improves self-understanding and emotional awareness. In art, we can find refuge and solace from the intensity of our emotions which can lead to catharsis.

You don't have to have any experience at making art. Don't judge your work, you don't have to share it either, just experiment with it and play around.

Get inspired by this list of creative exercises.

Cultivation of prosocial emotions – gratitude, authentic pride, guilt, self-compassion and compassion

Cultivation of prosocial emotions is at the forefront of nowadays science. The reason behind? It works. Prosocial emotions enhance our well-being and happiness.

Numerous studies show that we are wired for altruism, kindness and compassion, and children as young as two years of age demonstrate altruistic inclinations.

Humans have an innate need to be part of something larger and in need of meaningful relationships with others. Cultivating emotions and behavior that support relationships are as important to our survival as the satisfaction of our physiological needs.

Being part of social groups and circles, and nurturing close relationships are essential assets to our lives.

It makes us feel good to voluntarily help others even at a cost to ourselves. In return, our relationships get stronger which mitigates stress and loneliness and prolongs our lives.

NPR: Loneliness May Warp Our Genes, And Our Immune Systems


Gratitude is the positive emotion we feel when somebody intentionally gives us something of value. It is an appreciation of what we have rather than what we need and want.

We can deliberately cultivate gratitude and increase our life satisfaction and optimism.

We can give thanks in many ways. Write a gratitude note, create a gratitude jar, write a gratitude journal, but perhaps the most powerful one is writing a gratitude letter to a living person and letting them know what we wrote.

Exercise: Write a gratitude letter to someone who had a positive influence on your life. Write down all the reasons why this person has a positive effect on you and stay away from any forms of criticisms and negativity. After you write your letter, contact the person either on the phone or arrange a meeting, and read your letter to them.

VIDEO: The Science of Happiness - An experiment in Gratitude

Authentic pride

Pride is a core self-conscious emotion that is fundamental to human needs for status and acceptance. It arises when we self-evaluate what we've done.

However, we must differentiate authentic pride from hubristic pride. Authentic pride “I won because I practiced.” focuses on goal completion and the efforts made towards the goal whereas hubristic pride “I won because I'm great and talented.” focuses on the distorted view of self and uncontrollable causes and promotes aggression, dominance, and narcissism.

Authentic pride has a positive impact on self-control, conscientiousness, productivity, confidence, attention control, motivation, emotional impulsiveness, sense of purpose in life, compassion and dealing with failure. Authentic pride is correlated with feelings of humility and accomplishment.

We can cultivate authentic pride by being aware of our status its privilege and power and looking at our accomplishments as something we have earned.


Guilt is also a self-conscious emotion, but negative one associated with feelings of regret and agitation. Guilt plays an essential part in our morality and conscience.

Just like with pride we need to distinguish between two types of guilt – guilt and shame. Guilt focuses on doing or lack of doing and sense of responsibility “I did a bad thing.” whereas shame focuses on self and the distorted view of self “I did this, therefore, I'm a bad person.”. Shame unlike guilt endorses avoidance, social withdrawal, hiding and covering up.

Guilt, although negative, motivates prosocial behavior. When we feel guilty over not speaking to our parents, we phone them. When we feel guilty of hurting somebody, we apologize. When we borrow money and feel guilty about it, we return it faster.

Although chronic guilt is unhealthy, the conditioned feeling of guilt is critical to the reparation of damaged relationships and prevention of wrongdoing.

Self-compassion and compassion

The feeling of compassion arises when we recognize another's suffering and feel the need to alleviate it. Compassion differs from empathy and altruism, although they can accompany each other.

Self-compassion is no different only the focus is ourselves. Self-compassion is a main element of compassion. By not giving compassion to the self, we consider ourselves different from others. We may perceive ourselves as less than somebody else or more and deny our common humanity.

According to Kristin Neff, Associate Professor Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department, the University of Texas at Austin, self-compassion has three components: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.

Compassion has so many benefits. Just to name a few compassion makes us happier and more resilient to stress, it lessens our anxiety, loneliness and risk of heart disease and makes us better parents, spouses and friends.

We can help ourselves feeling more compassionate when we think about people we usually turn to in times of distress when we look for commonalities rather than differences when we see people as individuals when we nurture cooperation over competition, and when we avoid comparisons.

We can cultivate self-compassion by being kind to ourselves.

Exercise: Write a self-compassion letter to yourself for seven days in a row.


Joy and serenity are not slavishly tied to our physiology. We are not programmed neurons over which we have no control. We are collaborators in the generation of our thoughts and emotions.
― Jerome Kagan

Emotions whether negative or positive are a crucial part of our human experience. It is essential to embrace all our emotions and familiarize ourselves with them rather than concealing them or avoiding them.

Cultivating awareness of our emotions makes us recognize and understand our emotions better. As a reward, we can recognize and understand the emotions of others which leads to empathy and compassion. Acting on our prosocial emotions elicits positive emotions, and, therefore, improves our physical and mental well-being, happiness and life satisfaction.

How do you feel about this article? What is your opinion on the role of emotions in our life? Do you regulate your emotions in a healthy manner? Would you like to read more articles about emotions? 

Infographic: Emotions are not negotiable [infographic]

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