ANGER, anxiety, excitement and joy are just a few of the many emotions people can experience.
By Sandra Visser
Our emotions (what we feel) constantly change and are complex. With so many emotions it’s understandable that at times we struggle to know which emotion we’re feeling but also to control the one we’re feeling. Emotions can be triggered by a thought (internal stimulus) or something that happened (external stimulus). Emotion is often the driving force behind our actions – negative or positive.
Our emotions are like internal switches that spur us to action. Thoughts follow shortly after we’ve experienced an emotion. We feel first, then we think. Emotions are activated to trigger survival techniques such as the fight, flight or freeze response. It happens on a subconscious level.
American psychologist Dr Robert Plutchik (1927-2006) did research on emotions and identified eight primary or basic ones: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. They form the basis for a whole range of other emotions, according to Plutchik.
Negative and positive emotions
The eight emotions can be divided into two groups: negative emotions, which are sadness, disgust, anger and fear; and positive emotions, which are surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. Both are essential to humankind’s survival.
To help you understand the concept of different emotions it’s worth watching the 2015 animated Disney•Pixar movie Inside Out. It’s about a girl who moves to a big city with her family and the change causes her to struggle to cope with her emotions.
For the film, the number of emotions were simplified to five: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. It’s an entertaining way to learn about the different human emotions and how they interact with each other.
Because humans are social beings, it’s important to learn to identify and understand your own and others’ emotions so you can react appropriately. Luckily this is a skill that can be learnt and can help you be a good friend to someone. If one of your friends is sad, for example, you’ll know how to comfort them.
Where do our emotions come from?
The brain plays a key role in all emotions. It’s a complex organ but the part that’s involved in emotions and your physical reaction to them is situated in the limbic system deep in the brain above the brain stem. This forms the bottom part of your brain and connects your brain to your spinal cord.
"Think of your brain as a double-storey house with a top and a bottom storey,” says Claudia Roodt, a trauma therapist and adviser for the 1 000 Women Trust in Cape Town.
“Your brain has a top and bottom part. All planning and decisions happen in the top part of the brain.
“This part is important for learning, language and speech are formed here and this is where your emotions are controlled. This is called the cerebral cortex.”
When we’re struggling to give our emotions a name, it can lead to uncertainty, stress and anxiety. When things are unfamiliar and we find ourselves in a strange situation, the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. Everyone reacts differently and depending on the situation the emotion can be intense.
When you get anxious or experience stress, your body and nervous system reacts first. If you become overwhelmed by the reaction, the top part of your brain can’t function to control your emotions, which means you struggle to calm yourself down.
The global Covid-19 pandemic is making many adults and children anxious and causing immense pressure within families and communities.
We have to be careful that our emotions don’t overwhelm our thoughts and end up controlling our lives. Emotions happen in a split second and can lead to hasty decisions that we could later regret.
This should help your top brain to focus on the here and now and so distance you somewhat from your overwhelming emotions.
Exploring and controlling emotions is a lifelong process. You’re bound to make mistakes but you’ll also experience wonderful things. And with the help of parents, family, friends and teachers, this journey can be a great adventure.
Breaths comes in pairs except for two times in our lives – the beginning and the end.