Identifying Your Feelings

Where Do Emotions Come From?

Did you know that we feel at least one emotion 90% of the time. But how often do you stop to think about how emotions work? We experience emotions without questioning them—but they influence our relationships, our ability to work, enjoy our passions, create meaning, and make decisions in our everyday life. When we make a decision, we often dive head first without considering how our emotions influence our choices. 

The emotions we typically feel include: happy, sad, and angry. But there are more challenging emotions, too—emotions we don’t like to recognize inside ourselves. We struggle to talk about these negative emotions. When we are young, we might look for support by sharing our emotions with a parent. When we’re older, we might instead vent to a friend, bottle it up, or engage in unhealthy coping strategies. Our behaviours are influenced by how we feel and we might not always understand the reasons behind them. Let’s get into how emotions work.

Biology of Emotions

Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out where emotions come from, how they mix, or change so quickly. It can seem that moods and emotions are arbitrary. But they evolved from our ancient brains and are the result of the chemical action of neurotransmitters. For instance, fear is an emotion to ensure survival. Disgust is an ancient emotion which protects against dangerous foods and substances, and anger is a response to social threats. Neurotransmitters activate different parts of the brain responsible for the mood system and the autonomic nervous system.

How you feel from moment to moment is dependent on the transfer of chemical signals – dopamine, serotonin, and others – to your brain. When you experience an emotion, your body will activate a three-tiered response: you feel a physiological change, experience a chemical release, and a behavioural response.

Intervening on Your Emotions with CBT

Now that we know how emotions work, how can we identify them and intervene? Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT, operates like a triangle. The three points – thoughts, emotions, and behaviours – are interconnected and influence each other. A thought can trigger an emotion, and that emotion can trigger a behaviour response. The trick is to intervene before you get to the next point in the triangle.

You might want to play around with different techniques to interrupt the bridge between your thoughts and emotions.

  • Go for a walk
  • Call a friend
  • Write an entry in your journal
  • Hold a plank
  • Knit or do needlepoint
  • Or make yourself a cup of tea

The aim is to interrupt the thought and get underneath the emotion before it settles in to stay. If you can help it, don’t overreact to your physiology. The same feeling of sweaty skin, pounding chest, and faintness from an exhilarating, healthy run can mimic the feelings of anxiety, anger, or disgust. We like to think about emotions as a mental muscle. In order to build our response, we have to train it by learning how to identify and respond instead of reacting. So, try to label your physiology as just that—physiology, and take a deep breath or re-direct your energies. When you label your emotions, it can help you get to the other side of them, and it makes you more intentional in your decisions around substance.

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