Could you make a list of all the emotions you feel in a day? Emotions play a fascinating role in how we work as humans. In this emotion guide I will give you a list of the most common emotions and tips on how to control your emotions.
What are emotions?
An emotion is a mental state brought on by chemical changes in our body, outside stimulus or feelings associated with thoughts, behaviors and pleasures.
Our emotions are essential for keeping us safe.
Our species evolved to have emotions from the moment we are born – a combination of clever mechanisms involving cells and chemicals inside our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) that are designed to keep us safe.
Despite the millennia we have spent side by side with our emotions as we evolved, it can be difficult to really identify, understand, and control those feelings.
How we manage our emotions is called emotional intelligence.
So what’s actually going on in your body when you are feeling sad, or happy, or angry, or disgusted?
What causes emotions to change?
Emotions are basically a movement of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, which relay information across the brain from neuron to neuron.
You feel different emotions when you have varying levels of neurotransmitters and the activation of different areas of the brain in response to a stimulus. Let’s look at an example…
You’ve been promoted!
How did you feel when you read that? When your brain receives happy news, it signals the release of two neurotransmitters into the central nervous system. These neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin, and when they flood your brain you feel the emotion happiness.
Conversely, a lack of these neurotransmitters causes a feeling of sadness. Other emotions are caused by a combination of these neurotransmitters, and others, in various proportions.
The variety of emotions we experience have all evolved to keep us safe, whether it is fear holding us back from a potentially dangerous mountain path, or sadness encouraging us to reconnect with a friend after a fight.
Emotions keep our social species close to the people who protect us and provide us with resources, as well as physically safe from the dangers of the world.
How to Control Emotions
Identifying emotions can usually be done by taking some time to reflect on yourself and your experiences, but controlling emotions is a lifetime’s learning process.
If you find that your emotions are running away with you, here are the steps you need to follow to get yourself back to a calm and logical state where you can make decisions that really are the best for you, or react in such a way that doesn’t leave you with regrets.
Step #1: Take a moment to identify the emotion
Take a moment to dig deep into your mind, and take a moment of stillness to listen to your body. You might feel your palms sweating, and your heart racing fast.
Emotions have a physical effect on the body, and this can give you some clues about what is going on in your mind.
These symptoms could be due to anxiety, but equally, it could be excitement. Try to understand what you are feeling, and what might be the cause behind it. Is it a big presentation you have next week that has set you on edge? Or are you excited for a new opportunity at work tomorrow? Once you’ve worked that out, the process of controlling your emotions or understanding how they are influencing your behaviour will be a lot easier.
Step #2: Consider other factors
Just like a toddler, adults are susceptible to losing their ability to regulate their emotions if they’re hungry (seriously, ‘hangry’ is a real thing, there’s an entire scientific paper on it and everything) or if they’re tired – or both. Treat yourself like a kid, just for a minute. Are you too hot? Wearing something uncomfortable? Getting annoyed by someone tapping their pen?
All of these things can reduce our ability to control our emotions, and it’s worth taking a moment to fix them before going any further. You might find the situation resolves itself here. If you don’t, it’s onto the next step.
Step #3: Investigate the emotion and its context
Often, there is much more to your emotions than you can see on the surface. Ask yourself questions about your emotion to see if you can find these deeper issues.
For example, maybe you have seen a post on Instagram of your two best friends hanging out at the gym. Your immediate feeling is anger. Why would you feel angry that your friends are having a great time together? When you investigate further, you find that your anger is masking jealousy and you realise you are jealous because they didn’t invite you. You feel hurt because, deep down, you feel that you might have lost your friends.
When you’ve unpacked the emotion this far, you can start to contradict your irrational brain. Does this mean they don’t like you anymore? Or is it actually because they know you’re always busy on Friday afternoons? Wasn’t it just the other day they invited you for lunch, and you cancelled to spend time with family?
The more you work through these feelings, the more you will calm down.
Doing this stops you leaving a passive-aggressive comment on their social media, or uninviting them to your birthday (if these sound silly and childish, it’s because when we’re emotional, adults do act silly and childish – this is why it’s important to be able to regulate our emotions) and instead means you can take a logical approach to the next steps, which might be as simple as writing a message saying, “Hey, can we all meet up for dinner tonight? I’m feeling a bit left out.”
Step #4: Take some time to chill
Finally, whether it’s scrolling through Twitter for five minutes, or picking up your book for a bit, do something to take your mind away from whatever emotion your brain has lifted up and blown out of proportion.
If you find emotional regulation tough – don’t worry.
Controlling your emotions is hard. We evolved to act on them, not logically work through them. But, controlling your emotions will get easier each time you follow these steps. I promise! And you will see the fruits of your labour.
Being able to control your emotions means you are more likely to make better choices, rather than rash decisions in the heat of the moment that you might regret when your brain chemistry settles back down.
Emotion in the brain
Every time you experience an emotion, your body starts a cascade of responses – first a physiological change, then a chemical release, and a behavioural response. Sounds complicated, right? It is. Emotions involve multiple processes working together from your major organs to your limbic system.
Your limbic system is the oldest part of your brain and is a system thought to have evolved with the first mammals over 200 million years ago. These are ancient neural pathways that define our responses to emotions, as well as the controls for our fight or flight response.
When a signal is passed across your brain (for example, the nerves in your hand, telling your brain that you have just touched a hot plate, prompting you to react and pull your hand away) the signal is transmitted as electricity. However, the electricity can not jump from brain cell to brain cell. Instead, it converts into a chemical known as a neurotransmitter to bridge the gap (or ‘synapse’) between cells.
When it crosses the synapse, it converts back to electricity and so the message is carried like that across the brain. These chemical neurotransmitters have a big impact on our mood, and depending which are most present in our bodies and brain depends on which emotion we will experience (and to some degree, how intensely).
Here are the most common neurotransmitters involved in emotions:
This neurotransmitter is addictive – it is the chemical your brain really craves. Dopamine is associated with happiness and helps us to seek out the things we need to survive. It is released in the body when we’re experiencing positive feelings such as eating the food we enjoy or having sex.
Oxytocin is nicknamed ‘the cuddle hormone’. It’s released when you’re close with other people, whether it’s your baby, your best friend, or your Mum. It’s an essential part of making strong social bonds in our relationships and is key to feeling trust for other people.
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid)
This is the neurotransmitter you need when you are trying to control your fear or anxiety. It helps to slow down the rate at which our neurons are firing, which is hugely helpful when you’ve started to panic.
GABA is associated with the feeling of being calm.
Acetylcholine has a big effect on the body when it is released and dilates blood vessels, slows our heart rate, and contracts smooth muscle. Motivation, arousal, and attention are all increased with the release of this neurotransmitter.
This is the neurotransmitter that is most responsible for our wellbeing and happiness. You can increase the levels of serotonin in your body by exercising, meditating, and spending time in the sunshine.
Serotonin helps our moods feel more balanced, and improve our sleep and digestion.
List of Emotions
How many emotions are there? Different psychologists and scientists will give you different answers, but the most comprehensive and most accepted studies on emotion seem to support Robert Plutchik’s theory. Plutchik suggests there are eight basic emotions. These emotions could be expressed overtly, through body language, or more subtly through microexpressions.
Each emotion can be felt in varying intensities (for example, annoyance – anger – rage, or acceptance – trust – admiration).
Each of the basic emotions in Plutchik’s theory has an opposite, corresponding emotion.
- Joy is the opposite of sadness
- Anticipation is the opposite of surprise
- Fear is the opposite of anger
- Disgust is the opposite of trust
Here are Plutchik’s eight emotions:
Psychological studies have identified three causes of anger: when our desires, goals or expectations are not met, when we feel threatened, and/or when we are using anger to mask other emotions.
Are you familiar with that feeling as if your blood is boiling? That is your body releasing adrenaline in response to stress.
One of the first things that happens when you feel angry is that you go into the fight or flight response. If you’re a non-confrontational person or in a position, such as being at work, where you don’t feel comfortable showing anger, your instinct will tell you to get away from the source of your problem.
Otherwise, your body picks the fight response, which is how we typically see anger. You raise your voice, make accusations, become defensive and show negative body language. These behaviors are harmful and irrational, yet we do them anyways because when we’re angry our perception of risk and danger is lowered.
While anger, or rather the stress it causes, is known to be bad for us, there are actually some benefits of experiencing this ancient emotion.
- Anger Makes Us Focus More on Rewards. We get angry when something isn’t going the way we wanted it to and the feeling reinforces our desire for whatever it is we’re struggling to get whether it’s a job promotion we feel like we deserve or the satisfaction of winning an argument. Psychologist Simon Laham says this is why anger is a critical part of overcoming adversity. When you’re upset because nothing is going right and you feel like the world is against you, anger is the fuel that drives you to prove everyone wrong. It’s why people feel so motivated to prove their haters wrong.
- When We’re Angry, We’re More Optimistic. It sounds contradictory, but being angry makes us think more positively about the future. This is because when we’re angry, we feel like we’re in control. Researchers put people in fearful and angry moods, and then asked them questions about accomplishing goals. The angry participants took up the challenge because they focused on how to achieve the reward, while the fearful participants were held back by the possibility of failure.
- Anger Boosts Creativity. Next time you’re angry, invest your energy in working on a difficult task. Studies show that when you’re angry, you experience heightened energy levels and your thought process becomes more flexible, allowing you to come up with more and more original ideas than you can in your neutral state.
Anticipation is an emotion involving pleasure, excitement, or anxiety in considering or awaiting an expected event. Physiologically, it can feel similar to fear – an increased heart rate, sweaty palms – though we get our signals about what emotions we are feeling through the context of the situation.
If you are about to buy your dream car, it will be excitement, if you’re about to step onto a stage with a big audience, it might be anxiety, and if you are waiting to meet your date for the first time, it might be a mixture of both.
Each person will react differently to experiencing anticipation. Stage fright is a good example of how much this emotion can change our physiology – unable to speak, rooted to the spot, and suddenly blank on everything you needed to say.
Robin Skynner, a British psychiatrist in the mid 1900’s, suggests that the reason we experience anticipation when we are expecting less pleasurable events is because it is one of the mature ways of dealing with stress. Using anticipation to prepare for how you are going to deal with the situation can reduce some of the challenges, though – as the example of stage fright suggests – can make you perform badly in the process.
If you find your anticipation anxiety too much, you might benefit from some of the following activities to control this emotion:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Counting objects around the room
If I asked you to list some things that are disgusting, what would you say? My list (and I imagine yours too) would include:
- Rotting food
- And lots of other stereotypically disgusting things.
Did those make you say “ewwww?” Me too!
We’re disgusted by things we think are bad, whether it is rotting food or cockroaches in the bathroom. In pre-modern civilizations, this was a great trait because it prevented people from eating poisonous food and doing things that could make them sick.
Everyone has a different threshold for what triggers their disgust.
The more disgustable you are, the more judgmental you are. Using these findings, psychologist David Pizarro discovered that people’s threshold for disgust directly correlates with where they stand on the political spectrum. Extreme conservatives are easily disgusted while it is challenging to gross out a fierce liberal.
We become afraid when we encounter things and situations that we don’t understand, we can’t control, and/or we suspect will cause harm to us. In our modern world, many of our fears don’t seem logical. Is there any sense in fearing a money spider curled up in the corner of our bedroom? Or the social anxiety you may feel when you enter a party?
These days, probably not, but like all of your emotions fear has developed to keep you safe. Your tiny arachnid roommate won’t pose much threat here, but that would have been very different if you were hunting in a tropical forest with venomous spiders.
What’s your greatest fear?
According to a study by Chapman University, the top 5 fears in America are:
- Public speaking (we can help with your Public Speaking!)
- Bugs, snakes, and other animals
With the exception of drowning, these are all minimally threatening things that most people have to deal with yet, we react to them as if they’re going to kill us.
How to Be Less Fearful
Just because fear is a natural response doesn’t mean you can’t limit its power. Here’s how to be less fearful:
- Preparation: If you’re scared of activities that you know roughly what to expect such as job interviews, going to the dentist and confronting people, the best way to overcome it is to prepare. Practicing or thinking through what is going to happen prior to the event itself removes much of the uncertainty that causes fear.
- Take Action: Fear stems from a lack of control so focusing on things that you can control can help reduce your feelings. If you’re fearful of something major that you don’t have much control over, find one small thing that you can take action on and focus your attention on that so fear doesn’t overwhelm you.
- Relax: Research shows that it is easier to let go of your fear by engaging in a self-soothing behavior that relaxes you than it is to try to talk yourself out of being afraid. Find the self-soothing behavior that distracts you from your fear whether it’s prayer, meditation, yoga, a hobby etc. and put more time into this practice when you’re afraid.
Joy, or happiness, is our brain’s way of telling us that something – be it the feeling of sun on the face, or the company of a loved one – is good for us, encouraging us to seek it out, just as sadness and disgust encourage us to avoid the unhealthy or dangerous. We might experience joy as a result of events such as being reunited with an old friend, or finding a sentimental letter we thought was long gone.
When we feel joy when the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are released into our body.
The health benefits of experiencing joy include:
- Boosting the immune system
- Reducing stress
- Managing pain
Humans depend on each other to survive. Sadness is the emotion that makes us remember that fact.
Young children feel sad when they are separated from their parents. It’s that sadness that prompts them to cry and/or find their parents, potentially saving their lives. As people grow older, or if we drift from our loved ones, the sadness that accompanies separation is what drives people to continuously invest in relationships.
As painful as sadness is, it’s not all bad. Psychologists have discovered some surprising benefits of sadness that can help us make light of the emotion and its circumstances.
According to Joseph Paul Forgas, Ph.D., sadness reduces two key judgement biases that affect how we view people.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the tendency to believe that people are intentional when they make mistakes or say something wrong. When you’re sad, you’re less likely to think the worst of people.
- The Halo Effect: On the opposite end of the spectrum, people also believe that certain people–whether it’s because they’re attractive, successful, or family members–can do no wrong. Sadness gives you a less biased view of people so you also don’t exaggerate their goodness.
Studies show sadness can be a powerful motivational tool. When you’re happy you tend to want to stay where you are, and may not feel as driven to improve because you don’t feel the need to. That’s not the case with sadness.
While you shouldn’t go out of your way to make yourself sad if you are lacking motivation, allowing yourself to embrace the sadness of not being where you want to be in life, whether it’s with your relationships, career, physical health, etc. can motivate you to put in the effort to get to a happier place.
How to Be Less Sad
Despite its short-term benefits, frequently feeling sad lowers your quality of life. Luckily, how you deal with sadness has a huge effect on how powerful it is. According to Deepak Chopra, the best way to cope is to be proactive.
Here are some of his tips:
- Instead of focusing on your sadness, take actions to be happier.
- Share your feelings with a friend/loved one
- Focus on improving your well-being. Plenty of research has shown that exercise and eating healthy boosts your mood
- Recognize what’s making you sad and don’t obsess over the feeling. Everyone experiences sadness and throwing yourself a pity-party isn’t going to help.
Surprise is our instant reaction whenever we face something unexpected, whether that’s a piece of good news like your first grandchild, or the shock of your car suddenly skidding on the ice. It begins with being frozen or stunned, followed by an attempt to understand the new experience, then a reaction to it – all of which can take as little time as a few seconds, or as long as a week – followed by a need to share that experience with others.
Neurologists have discovered that surprise stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores and processes memories, which is why we can often remember pivotal moments from our childhoods in incredible detail. Psychologists believe that this is most likely a survival instinct that helps us to learn from new events and pass that learning on.
According to Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, authors of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, surprise unravels in four stages.
- Freeze: We’re stunned by the unexpected. This often comes with a gasp.
- Find: We try to figure it out.
- Shift: The surprise begins to change our perspective because it introduces us to something new.
- Share: We often feel compelled to tell others about our novel experiences.
The Shocking Benefits of Surprise
Given how typically short-lived the feeling of surprise is, you might not expect it to have much of an effect. However, researchers have discovered some key ways pleasant surprise boosts our well-being.
#1: It boosts memory
You’re more likely to remember a surprising experience than an expected one. Researchers at the University of Madgeburg in Germany discovered that the hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps process and store information, becomes more active when people are faced with shocking information or stimuli compared to the familiar. As a result, your brain remembers more details about things that elicit surprise compared things you expect.
This is why you can recall vivid details about exciting childhood experiences, but sometimes struggle to remember things you did last week.
#2 Pleasant Surprises Make Us Happier
Researchers at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine discovered that the pleasure centers of our brains are more active when we experience surprising positive moments compared to positive moments that we expect to happen. This is why we tend to feel so much happier when someone gives us a gift at random times of the year than on Christmas or our birthday when we’re expecting presents. It also amplifies unexpected pleasures like compliments from people who rarely give them and sunny weather after weeks of fog and rain.
#3 It Adds Spark to Your Relationships
Studies show that doing novel activities with your partner improves your level of satisfaction in your relationship. When you’ve been with someone for years, it’s easy to fall into daily habits that leave you feeling bored with your relationship. Taking time to surprise your partner by doing new activities together brings back the excitement you felt in the early days of your relationship when everything was new and fun.
Emotions Build Trust
Humans are instinctively social, loyal to family groups, friendship groups, clubs and even their workplaces. Trust allows us to be vulnerable to others with the expectation that in return they will share your burden, whether that’s caring for your child, or lending a sympathetic ear when you want to let off some steam.
To that end we seek out people who are trustworthy. Trustworthiness is the characteristic or behaviour of one person that inspire positive expectations in another person, and trust propensity being able to rely on people.
Emotions may simply be a case of chemistry, but managing those emotions is far from an exact science. It takes time, and practice, to fully develop our emotional intelligence skills.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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