Describing Emotions

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Emotions involve what we call action urges. An important function of emotions is to prompt behaviors. For example if we feel angry, we may be prompted to fight. Or if we feel fear, we may be prompted to run or flee.

The action itself, the fighting, or running, or hugging is not part of the emotion, but the urge to do the action, the feeling that prompts you to do the action, is considered part of the feeling.

If we feel angry at someone, we may feel an urge to start yelling at them. That urge is part of the angry feeling. But the fighting is not part of the feeling.

1. Prompting event

    Emotions can be either reactions to events in the environment or to things inside a person. These events and things are called PROMPTING EVENTS. They prompt, or call forth the emotion. A person's thoughts, behaviors and physical reactions prompt emotions. (Recently someone put his hand on the back of my neck, and I felt fear and anger.) You might have an automatic feeling, without thinking about it, like "I feel love when I see my cat."

    What triggers it or gets it going? Prompting events can be events happening in the present (an interaction with someone, losing something, physical illness, financial worries).  A prompting event might also be a memory, a thought, or even another feeling (we feel ashamed, and then feel angry about feeling ashamed, for example). In managing our emotions, it is important to be able to recognize prompting events.

    Think of some examples of your own where there is an inside prompting for a feeling you have

 2.  Interpretation of an event or experience

    Most events outside ourselves don't prompt emotions. It is the interpretation of the event that prompts the emotion.




Seeing my boyfriend with my best friend

They must have been talking about me


My car has a flat tire

Some neighborhood kid did this


It starts to thunder and lightning

I have heard of people being killed by lightning


I see Mary at the concert with Betty after she promised to go with me

Mary doesn't care about me


I see Mary at the concert with Betty after she promised to go with me

Mary is trying to get back at me


    Can you see that the emotion comes after the interpretation is made, after you have the thought about the reason something is happening?

Think of some examples of your own, and list the event, your interpretation of the events (what you think about it) and your emotion.

3. Body Changes

    Emotions involve body changes such as tensing and relaxing muscles, changes in heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, rises and falls in blood pressure, etc. The most important of these changes for you to be aware of are the facial changes - clenched jaw, tightened cheek and forehead muscles, tightening the muscles around the eyes so that they open wider or shut more, grinding or clenching teeth, loosening and tightening around the mouth.

    Researchers now believe that changes in the face muscles play an important part in causing emotions. I noticed years ago, for example, that stretching out my cheek muscles like in a lion's roar made me cry - still does.

Be aware of the changes in your facial muscles when you are experiencing emotions.

4. Body Response to Emotions

    When we experience emotions, there are changes in our bodies. Sometimes people have trouble sensing their body changes. To regulate our emotions we have to be pretty good at sensing what is going on in our bodies. If we have practiced shutting off our body sensations, this can be difficult. However it is a learned response and we can unlearn it by practicing something else.

5. Action Urges

    An important thing that emotions do is to prompt behaviors. An action urge may be to fight or attack verbally in anger, or to flee or hide in fear, etc.

What are some action urges that you might have for these emotions?

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Disgust
  • Surprise

  • 6. Expression and Communication

      One of the most important functions of emotions is to COMMUNICATE. To communicate something, an emotion has to be expressed. Sometimes, if we have not learned to express our emotions, we may think we are communicating but the other person isn't getting it. This can cause misunderstanding.

      Example: I am told that for most of my life I did not show any expression on my face, and it still is not the easiest thing for me. I would feel angry, hurt and rejected because people did not respond to my feelings, which I thought were very obvious. Now I understand that people could not tell what I was feeling and so they did not respond. I find that it works best for me to tell people what I am feeling, instead of relying just on
      my facial expression.

      Emotions are expressed by facial expressions, words and actions. Expressing emotions through behaviors can also cause problems, because different people interpret behaviors in different ways.

      Example: When I am so angry that I am afraid I am going to say something I will regret, I leave the room. People have interpreted this as meaning that I am chickening out or I don't care or I am saying "in your face." I have learned to say that I am leaving to cool down and I will be back, so people will understand what I am doing.

    7. After Effects

      Emotions have after effects on our thoughts, our physical function and our behavior. Sometimes these effects can last quite a while. One after effect is that an emotion can keep triggering the same emotion over and over.



    Try completing work on Homework Sheet 1. Select a current or recent emotional reaction and fill out as much of the sheet as you can.

    Tips for Describing Emotions

    The Emotion Regulation Handout 4: Ways to Describe Emotions, are for you to use for help in
    describing your emotions. You don't need to read them all through unless you want to. You can refer to them when you need some help in describing your emotions. Probably you will find that not everything in these lists fits you. Emotions are very individual, and you can choose things that fit, and add other things.

    If you are having trouble, try describing the qualities of your emotions. There are no right answers here. We are trying to get you to pay more close attention to your own emotions.

    Some things interfere with observing and describing emotions. One of these things is secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are those that come after the original emotions For example, you might feel angry, and then you might feel shame for feeling angry. Or you might feel sad, and then feel angry about the sadness. This makes it harder to figure out what was your original emotion and to work on dealing with that. Ask yourself, "Was that my first feeling?

    Some people also often feel ambivalence, or more than one emotion at the same time, like both anger and sadness when someone dies or goes away.

    You will become more skilled at describing emotions as you practice. I suggest that you do this exercise several times (make some photocopies of the page) over the next couple of weeks. The more you practice, the better you will get at describing and observing your emotions. Don't feel discouraged if it doesn't come easily at first. Looking at emotions this way is changing patterns that a lot of us have been using most of our lives. There are no right answers. The idea is for you to get practice in observing and describing your emotions.

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