Human emotions evolved so that we can respond quickly to life-or-death situations.
After all, while fear may prevent us from behaving in a ‘life-limiting’ way, anger can drive us to protect ourselves or those closest to us.
While evidence suggests some emotions are universal, there is no one-size-fits-all emotional balance that suits every culture or all individuals.
We should remain cautious and avoid seeing clients who may differ emotionally from ourselves as needing to be fixed. However, we all benefit from better understanding our emotions and how they impact our behavior, especially when they are at odds with our daily and lifelong goals.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions, and give you the tools to foster your clients’, students’, or employees’ emotional intelligence.
This article contains:
- What Are Emotions and How Do They Work?
- The Important Role of Negative Emotions
- 4 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions
- 5 Worksheets to Disentangle Emotions
- Top 4 Activities
- Understanding Children’s Emotions
- 6 Books on the Topic
- PositivePsychology.com Emotional Intelligence Tools
- A Take-Home Message
What Are Emotions and How Do They Work?
The human mind evolved key adaptations to facilitate our ancient ancestors’ survival and reproductive challenges. While the environment we live in has changed dramatically, we still share their capacity for problem solving, perception, belief systems, and emotional thinking (Workman & Reader, 2015).
A definition of emotional thinking must, therefore, not only (i) cater to the range of emotions we possess (including both positive and negative); it should also (ii) explain how we react physically, psychologically, and cognitively to everyday events (proximate factors); and (iii) explain why the mechanism evolved over many generations (ultimate factors).
Evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse (1990) describes emotions as “specialized modes of operation shaped by natural selection” to influence behavior in response to “threats and opportunities.”
After all, evolution’s psychological adaptations are not only for problem solving, but also for helping and motivating the individual to maintain and sustain goal-directed behavior. Our ancestors had to identify reliable food sources, avoid being eaten, protect their young, and find a suitable sexual partner (Workman & Reader, 2015).
Emotions – such as interest, sadness, and anger – are crucial factors in such motivation, driving us to both act and react. However, while there are clear links, it is worth noting that emotions differ from motivation regarding their expression. For example, happiness and anger have physiological responses, such as increased heart rate and sweating, not shared by motivation.
Indeed, Nesse (1990) suggested there are three components to emotions: physiological, psychological, and behavioral. For example, a fear of heights may lead to an increased heart rate and cortisol production, psychological coping strategies, and specific behavior such as checking and re-checking safety equipment (Diemer, Lohkamp, Mühlberger, & Zwanzger, 2016).
Recently, research has begun to provide insight into what is happening in the brain when we experience emotion.
Advanced brain scanning using positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging has identified two potential areas engaged in regulating and managing our emotions (Workman & Reader, 2015).
- The amygdala, a central part of the limbic system, has been recognized in brain-injured patients as central to identifying emotions in others’ faces, such as fear, sadness, and anger.
- The orbitofrontal cortex – vital in many higher-order functions such as reasoning, processing language, and even consciousness – if damaged, dramatically changes personality and emotional response (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).
Finally, before leaving the physiology behind, it is worth noting that the brain is also underpinned by complex chemical activity. Our emotional responses are entirely driven by hormones such as adrenalin (epinephrine), testosterone, and cortisol.
However, while physiology’s importance in determining our emotions is evident, how these emotions are displayed is modified by cultural factors known as display rules (De Gelder & Huis in ‘t Veld, 2016). An individual’s culture dramatically affects how we express positive emotions, such as happiness, and negative emotions, such as anger.
To summarize, emotional responses are highly complex and dictated by genetic predispositions from birth onward as well as personal experience.
The Important Role of Negative Emotions
Whether emotions are deemed positive or negative by psychology or societal norms can sometimes appear arbitrary.
After all, while the renowned Dr. Ekman, American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California (1972), identified that facial expressions of happiness, anger, fear, and enjoyment are recognized worldwide, their cultural acceptance varies considerably.
For example, while many of us view anger as inappropriate in parenting, when a hostile tribe confronted our hunter–gather ancestors, it was not only suitable, but potentially life saving.
Indeed, emotions, whether judged positive or negative, are all impulses to act. Therefore, each of the following prepares the body for very different responses (Goleman, 2006).
Negative emotions include:
- Anger – outrage, resentment, irritability, and animosity
- Sadness – grief, gloom, melancholy, and despair
- Fear – anxiety, nervousness, dread, and concern
- Disgust – contempt, revulsion, disdain, and contempt
Positive emotions include:
- Enjoyment – happiness, joy, delight, euphoria
- Love – trust, acceptance, adoration, and kindness
- Positive surprise – thrill, wonder, and amazement
What then does the research tell us about negative emotions?
- Memories related to being happy, in love, calm, and experiencing positive surprises are more easily recalled than negative emotions, such as being sad, afraid, angry, or experiencing unwanted surprises (Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009).
- There are some clear physical and behavioral reactions to negative emotions. Disgust is associated with narrowing the eyes and field of vision, reducing visual acuity, and recognizing something damaging (for example, rotten food). Fear, on the other hand, results in the widening of the eyes, an increased ability to detect visual stimuli, and detecting and tracking threats (Lee, Mirza, Flanagan, & Anderson, 2014).
- A study including participants from 46 countries concluded that while influenced by cultural values (individualism and survival/self-expression), experiencing positive emotions was more critical to increased life satisfaction than reducing negative emotions (Kuppens, Realo, & Diener, 2008).
- Research found that entrepreneurs are more likely to negatively evaluate a business opportunity when experiencing negative emotions such as fear (Grichnik, Smeja, & Welpe, 2010).
- Students with a tendency toward negative emotions such as boredom perform less well in learning activities (Wortha, Azevedo, Taub, & Narciss, 2019).
It is self-evident that negative emotions have an essential role in our evolutionary past and under specific conditions in the modern world. For example, fear may stop us from crossing at a dangerous place on the road or climbing a rock face without adequate protection.
However, when emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear take over and negatively impact the quality of our lives, it may be time to seek help.
4 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions
Emotional thinking can lead to short-term decisions that ignore long-term happiness and the achievement of life goals (Gray, 1999).
There are, however, many ways to help your clients gain insight into their emotions, most of which begin by identifying and recognizing them, before going on to explore how they make them feel, think, and behave:
Recognize emotional thinking
Emotions may be recognized by their impact on our cognition (Peters, 2016):
- Jumping to an opinion – reaching a conclusion without all the information
- Black-and-white thinking – at times, we can be inflexible and unforgiving; we ignore the shades of gray
- Paranoid thinking – when we feel vulnerable, we often become paranoid
- Catastrophizing – overreaction fueled by intense emotion
- Irrational – ignoring reason and making decisions without due consideration
- Emotive judgment – judgments made too quickly, based on feelings rather than facts
We often judge ourselves and others harshly. And yet, much of what we go through – the positive and negative emotions – is natural and experienced by everyone.
Mindfully practicing self-compassion can help your client explore and engage with deeply held emotions, memories, and experiences while treating themselves with kindness (Shapiro, 2020).
Suggest your clients perform the following steps (either within a session or at home):
- Bring to mind one challenge that you would like to focus on, perhaps at work or at home.
- Write the situation down as objectively as you can.
- Mindfully (with curiosity and openness) observe any emotions or bodily sensations that arise without engaging with them.
- Alongside each, write down supportive, compassionate statements you could say to yourself or a friend, for example:
It’s okay to feel this way.
I am here for you.
We all make mistakes.
- Reflect that it is natural to feel upset, lonely, frustrated, and fearful at times.
- Consider others around the world who may be going through the same thing.
- Show compassion to yourself and others in this or similar situations.
Talk about your feelings
Explain to the client that discussing feelings and emotions is hugely beneficial, restores a sense of control, provides perspective, and reduces the impact of stressors (Lepore, Ragan, & Jones, 2000).
Talking through problems out loud with a friend, family member, therapist, or even when alone not only helps us see things differently, it also gives us time and focus to use logic and perspective, leading to:
- Reduced feelings of threat and anxiety
- Rationalized events
- Normalized emotions. We recognize that our feelings are normal and faced by others.
Such conversations can be difficult and may be helped by focusing on another task or activity simultaneously (for example, going for a walk, preparing a meal, etc.).
Reflection and reappraisal
While we each have many emotions throughout the day, often passing by without much consideration, it can be useful to revisit them.
After all, if clients wish to implement changes in their lives, it is vital to understand their emotions and whether their responses to events were logical or emotional. Ask them to:
- Review some of the situations faced during the day.
- Consider how they handled them:
- Was your behavior, or your response, based on emotional or logical thinking?
- Could you have dealt with the situation better?
- Now try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. How would they think you reacted?
Time spent reflecting can help you recognize emotions, their effect, and future improvements.
5 Worksheets to Disentangle Emotions
According to Klaus Scherer, director of the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences in Geneva, to recognize and make sense of emotional signals, we require three skills: perception, understanding, and regulation of emotions (Geddes, 2015).
Each of the following worksheets will support you or your client with one or more of the skills:
- Use the Building Emotional Awareness worksheet to learn how to mindfully attend to current emotional states and develop emotional intelligence skills.
- Reading Facial Expressions of Emotions is crucial not only to emotional intelligence but also to social interaction. Use this tool to further develop skills at recognizing emotions in others.
- The Intensity of Emotions Diagrams can help increase emotional awareness, gain emotional intelligence, and identify high or low emotional intensity that characterizes emotional disturbances.
- Extreme emotions can lead you to feel overwhelmed by a situation or an environment. The Decatastrophizing Worksheet helps the client cognitively restructure how they think by exploring a series of what if questions.
- The Radical Acceptance Worksheet is a DBT exercise that can help people deal with intense negative emotions by accepting a lack of control in certain situations while learning to respond mindfully.
Top 4 Activities
We often overreact or believe that the world is against us. However, the following practices can help someone react more rationally and see things as they are:
Stone of Life
Dr. Steve Peters (2016) created this term to represent the values and beliefs by which we live our lives. The statements should be personal, based on what is important to the client.
Review the following, adapt, modify, and delete as appropriate. Use it to remind yourself of what you hold dear and what you must accept in life (modified from Peters, 2016):
- Life is not always fair.
- Goalposts move.
- There are no guarantees.
- I am an adult, and I can deal with any situation.
- Everything that happens ultimately passes.
- Disappointments (while sometimes painful) must remain in perspective.
- Happiness can be found in many different ways.
- It is not what happens but how you deal with it that gives you peace of mind.
- Every day is precious.
Review with the client their personal truths. Ask the client to place these statements somewhere where they will be daily reminded that reacting emotionally and losing perspective is not always the best path.
The effects on others
Positive and negative emotions can pass from one person to the next. Use the Ripple Effects from Emotions tool to arrive at a complete understanding of how our feelings affect those around us.
For many, listening to or playing music can be an intense expression of their emotions.
The Using Music to Express Feelings tool provides a means for the client and the therapist to safely and comfortably share a deep emotional understanding.
Dealing with negative emotions
Strong negative emotions can be extremely uncomfortable. The Imagery Based Exposure Worksheet encourages us to sit with complicated feelings until the memory’s power or hold decreases.
Understanding Children’s Emotions
Emotional intelligence is not fixed. Children can learn to identify and recognize their emotions and choose how they wish to respond to a positive or negative situation.
Forming good habits
As Professor Steve Peters writes in The Silent Guides (2018), several habits can help bring children’s emotions under control:
- Talking about their feelings
Talking about feelings and expressing emotions can help manage emotions and provide vital new perspectives.
- Seeking help
Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. While independence is good, it can lead to missing out on learning.
- Three steps for developing the habit include:
- Recognize when to ask for assistance.
- Know the sort of help needed.
- Ask the right person for support.
- Showing good manners
It can be useful to discuss what good manners might look like with the child. After all, there are many cultural nuances and differing levels of expectation based on the environment.
By learning what they expect from others, it can help them manage their emotions and resulting behavior.
- Trying new things
While useful for physical and mental health, stepping out of their comfort zone can also be a valuable way of gaining confidence and greater control over how children think and behave.
- Learning to share
It can be a successful way of identifying and practicing collaborative behavior.
Overcoming internal struggles
Children may find it useful to compare how they presently feel struggling with emotion versus how they would feel if their thinking changed. Use the three steps in the Inside and Outside exercise to understand How do I think? Feel? And what do I do?
Removing the masks
Children, like adults, often mask how they feel. Use the Emotion Masks exercise with children to help them recognize what sort of mask they put on when they don’t want to deal with something they feel.
The simple act of talking about emotions with children can help them identify and name their feelings and understand that they control how they react to situations.
6 Books on the Topic
There are plenty of books that can help practitioners or interested readers understand the science and practical side of human emotions.
The six included below include academic texts delving into the brain science and evolutionary background behind emotions, while the remainder offer helpful tips and tools for personal, or client, insight:
1. Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction – Lance Workman and Will Reader
This book is a valuable introduction to evolutionary psychology and the evolved mind.
Workman and Reader venture into developmental, cognitive, and social psychology from an evolutionary perspective to better understand the link to behavior.
It’s an ideal text for both students and professionals.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook – Michael W. Eysenck and Mark T. Keane
This is a leading textbook in the field of cognitive psychology, exploring all aspects of human cognition.
This in-depth guide has been revised over the last 20 years to include the latest memory, problem-solving, and perception developments.
While a technical book used within degree programs, it is written clearly with countless examples to aid understanding.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Handbook of Emotions – Lisa Feldman Barrett, Michael Lewis, and Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones
The Handbook of Emotions is the definitive reference book for the science of emotion.
Bringing together experts from multiple research disciplines, Barrett and co-authors offer incredible insight into the biology and neuroscience behind emotions and guidance from a clinical perspective.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. The Chimp Paradox – Dr. Steve Peters
This book is a practical and easily digestible guide to understanding and managing emotional thinking.
Peter brings years of experience as a consultant psychiatrist specializing in the functioning of the human mind.
Providing a precise model of emotional versus rational thinking offers the interested reader practical insights for handling life’s challenges.
Find the book on Amazon.
5. My Hidden Chimp – Dr. Steve Peters
Peters, building on the success of The Chimp Paradox, provides children with 10 habits to understand their emotions and behavior and learn how to regain control.
A variety of fun exercises are provided for children to learn the skills they need to think about mental habits and put them into practice.
Find the book on Amazon.
6. Master Your Emotions: A Practical Guide to Overcome Negativity and Better Manage Your Feelings – Thibaut Meurisse
This hugely popular guide by a well-known blogger helps the reader overcome negative emotions.
While simple and easy to use, this is a powerful set of tools Meurisse has put together for managing feelings.
His overall aim is to help people realize their potential and reach their highest level of fulfillment.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com Emotional Intelligence Tools
We offer a wealth of resources for working with clients to explore and understand their emotions.
The Emotional Intelligence Masterclass is a complete, six-module emotional intelligence training template for helping professionals. It includes all the materials you need to deliver high-quality, science-based, EQ training sessions.
A Take-Home Message
There is no prescriptive, definitive, or perfect balance of emotions. Indeed, one combination would not work for every individual, in every situation, across multiple times and locations.
As Edgar Cabanas explores in Manufacturing Happy Citizens (2019), we must be careful not to be so bold as to advocate that everyone should be happier or calmer – ‘a good life’ can mean many things to many people.
After all, each emotion has value. However, we should be able to maintain control over the behavior that it results in and keep balance in our lives. There are times to be angry, as there are times to be happy.
And yet, if our emotions mean we cannot function (for example, work or form meaningful bonds with others), we may need to find a better way to find balance and control.
If individual emotions (or a small range of emotions) are dominating your client’s life, getting in the way of them leading a fulfilling life, or placing them at risk, try out some of the tools within this article and beyond. Help the client to identify and understand their emotions and gain control over their call to action.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a six-module emotional intelligence training package for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to become an emotional intelligence expert, helping your clients harness their emotions and cultivate emotional connection in their lives.
- Barrett, L. F., Lewis, M., & Haviland-Jones, J. M. (Eds.). (2018). Handbook of emotions (4th ed.). The Guilford Press .
- Cabanas, E. (2019). Manufacturing happy citizens: How the science and industry of happiness control our lives. Polity Press.
- De Gelder, B., & Huis in ‘t Veld, E. (2016). Cultural differences in emotional expressions and body language. In J. Y. Chiao, S.-C. Li, R. Seligman, & R. Turner (Eds.), Oxford Library of Psychology. The Oxford handbook of cultural neuroscience (pp. 223–234). Oxford University Press.
- Diemer, J., Lohkamp, N., Mühlberger, A., & Zwanzger, P. (2016). Fear and physiological arousal during a virtual height challenge—Effects in patients with acrophobia and healthy controls. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 37, 30–39.
- Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotions. In J. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (pp. 207–282). Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
- Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. New York: Psychology Press.
- Geddes, L. (2015). Self-mastery can be yours with three pillars of emotional wisdom. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22930540-800-self-mastery-can-be-yours-with-three-pillars-of-emotional-wisdom/.
- Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
- Gray, J. R. (1999). A bias toward short-term thinking in threat-related negative emotional states. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(1), 65–75.
- Grichnik, D., Smeja, A., & Welpe, I. (2010). The importance of being emotional: How do emotions affect entrepreneurial opportunity evaluation and exploitation? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 76(1), 15–29.
- Kuppens, P., Realo, A., & Diener, E. (2008). The role of positive and negative emotions in life satisfaction judgment across nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 66–75.
- Lee, D. H., Mirza, R., Flanagan, J. G., & Anderson, A. K. (2014). Optical origins of opposing facial expression actions. Psychological Science, 25(3), 745–752.
- Lepore, S. J., Ragan, J. D., & Jones, S. (2000). Talking facilitates cognitive-emotional processes of adaptation to an acute stressor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(3), 499–508.
- Meurisse, T. (2018). Master your emotions: A practical guide to overcome negativity and better manage your feelings. Author.
- Nesse, R. M. (1990). Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human Nature, 1(3), 261–289.
- Peters, S. (2016). The chimp paradox. London: Vermilion.
- Peters, S. (2018). My hidden chimp. Studio Press Books.
- Peters, S. (2018). The silent guides: Understanding and developing the mind throughout life. London, UK: Bonnier Books.
- Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. London, UK: Aster.
- Talarico, J. M., Berntsen, D., & Rubin, D. C. (2009). Positive emotions enhance recall of peripheral details. Cognition & Emotion, 23(2), 380–398.
- Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wortha, F., Azevedo, R., Taub, M., & Narciss, S. (2019). Multiple negative emotions during learning with digital learning environments – Evidence on their detrimental effect on learning from two methodological approaches. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.