Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Understanding our emotions can be difficult. Why do we have them? When? What are the subtle differences between one and another and how do they impact our daily life?
The study of emotion has expanded greatly over the last 30 years, with changes in technology that allow us to better study the brain and see emotions as they happen. We have an improved understanding of the biological process of emotional experience and how our behavior is influenced by emotion and, at the same time, how behavior can indicate that we are experiencing a particular emotion.
Emotions are a biological process, triggered by events in our lives, sensory experiences and our thoughts about those experiences. This biological process involves physical changes in our bodies and in our brain. But our inner experience of emotions-our perception of these changes– is not part of a biological process.
All people have emotions. People vary greatly in their inner experience of emotion on a moment-by-moment basis. Our sense of our feelings–that is the ability to know that an emotion is occurring-does not just happen. This awareness or perception of emotion is a skill and can be learned.
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Feelings can occur in any moment. For example, you might be chatting with a friend on-line and become annoyed at a comment. Your direct experience of this annoyance might be an awareness of a tightening of the chest or clenching your jaw.
But not all moments have feelings related to our emotions. Say you’re drinking a glass of water. You might note the sensation of the water in your mouth, the coolness of it, as it slides down your throat and the feeling of fullness in your belly without perceiving any emotional response at that moment.
When you do have a feeling, it can be clear and distinct, such as when you’re cut off in traffic and feel anger. You might sense it immediately as you grip the steering wheel and have the urge to shout at the other driver. Or a feeling may be vague and diffuse, such as when you notice feeling mildly irritated or frustrated at a glitch in your workday. In another example, maybe you are watching a romantic movie and you have some vague sense of wanting romance or feeling mildly as if you are missing something in your life. In this case, the feeling is not strong, it’s hard to discern where you’re feeling it in your body and difficult to describe.
The sensations in the body that are related to emotions also range from clear to hazy and imprecise. Sometimes we experience emotion in our heads. For example, the emotion can be felt as tension in the head, headaches or a perception of thinking or worrying.
However an emotion occurs and whether it is clear or some unformulated sensation, our ability to perceive them is a skill. Knowing that sadness, for example, is experienced as an integration of heaviness in the body, moistness in your eyes and a monotonous voice, can come with experience or can be taught, in the way that we teach mathematics in school.
Some people are more apt at noticing their inner experience of emotions. But, as with any skill, increasing knowledge and practicing can improve your ability. Knowing what emotion you are experiencing in any given moment is a window into yourself. It can reduce the intensity of painful emotions and allows you to begin to make choices about how you want to respond to your emotions.
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