22 Crucial Things to Know About Emotions for Emotional Health

Over the 18 years that I have studied emotions, I have learned things that felt so universally important for health and wellbeing that I was shocked they had never been taught to me before. I mean, come on! I learned trigonometry in high school which I’ve barely used but information on emotions, which affects my daily life, I was taught NOTHING! I was fortunate to study biological sciences, neuroscience, and psychology at the best schools, and not once did I learn any of the following crucial aspects of being a person:

  1. Emotions just are. They can't be stopped. They can't be prevented. We only have a choice over how we respond to emotions. And that is a hugely important choice we all have to make several times each and every day.

  2. Emotions are physical experiences. They are a collection of bodily sensations and impulses for actions that we come to recognize as a particular emotion.

  3. Core emotions are wired-in programs that are active from birth to death.

  4. Babies cannot effectively soothe and calm their own emotions - they need calm and loving adults to do that for them. As adults, we can calm and soothe ourselves better. (But adults also need others for soothing and comfort.)

  5. The ability to sense emotions in the body has important ramifications for personal growth, brain change, and transformation.

  6. Core emotions cause changes in the body that can be perceived with effort and practice using guides like the Change Triangle.

  7. Core emotions have adaptive action tendencies that we feel as impulses. Often these impulses, when we aren't aware of them, drive unwanted behaviors behind the scenes.

  8. Whether we are consciously aware of emotional impulses or not, they always exert a force for action. For example, when we are triggered to anger, we may feel the impulse to blame or attack the person who angered us, but still not be aware that we are experiencing anger.

  9. Inhibitory emotions like anxiety, guilt, and shame, are another category of emotions that serve to bury, squash, and block core emotions. (See them on the top right corner of the Change Triangle down below.)

  10. Inhibitory emotions suppress core emotions to keep us connected to others. For example, I learned to use guilt and shame to bury my anger so I was not aware of being angry and did not show my anger with others who I thought would judge and reject me for it.

  11. Many people judge and blame others for having emotions because they don’t understand emotions and haven't learned constructive ways to respond to other people's emotions.

  12. Emotions are contagious.

  13. Over 70% of emotional communication is non-verbal. We deeply react to each other's tone of voice, body posture, and facial expressions. For example, no matter the words my mother says, if she looks angry and has a harsh and judgmental tone of voice, I will be triggered.

  14. We use defenses to avoid emotions, and those defenses are meant to protect us from emotional discomfort.

  15. Defenses are brilliant adaptations designed to help us survive painful experiences. It doesn’t help to think of them as bad. Rather it is important to understand that habitually using defenses costs us our vitality and authenticity.

  16. Processing feelings instead of burying them or blocking them with defenses and inhibitory emotions is important because the energy that core emotions create needs release - not to stay stuck in our body.

  17. Ideally, emotional energy is spent on engagement with the outside world (meaningful work, activities, and connection with other people), not on maintaining defenses that push our emotions away.