When we think of emotions we rarely think of the actual purpose emotions serve us. What are emotions and why do we experience them?
Emotions are rapid information-processing systems that help us act with minimal thinking (Tooby & Cosmides, 2008). They are a pattern of reactions whose purpose is to adapt and react to a situation quickly and with minimal cognitive intervention.
Without emotions we would have not survived as a species. Emotions direct our behavior – whether to attack, defend or flee. Whether someone needs help and care. Whether to reject or accept food.
The components of an emotion
Emotions consist of three components – a subjective experience (a stimulus), a physiological response and a behavioral response
The stimulus is the experience that triggers the emotion. It is subjective – the same experience could trigger different emotions in different people.
Once registered, the stimulus causes a reaction of the autonomic nervous system – a physiological response. The autonomic nervous system controls your involuntary bodily responses – your heart rate, your blood pressure, your digestive processes, etc.
For example when the experience makes you scared, your autonomic nervous system temporarily shuts down unnecessary digestive processes, reducing saliva which results in a dry mouth. It increases blood flow in the lower half of the body, increases the air intake. You start breathing rapidly, your visual field expands, you are alert. The autonomic nervous system just prepared your body to flee.
Then comes the behavioral response. It is the actions you take in order to express the emotion. Those actions largely depend on your personality, the context, the perceived consequences of the action and the sociocultural norms you abide by.
While you cannot influence the first two components of an emotion, you can control and change the behavioral response you have to an emotion. How you respond to the experiences in your life is up to you.
How do emotions affect your life?
People are hardwired to seek positive emotions and avoid negative ones. This affects the choices we make and the actions we take.
And while avoiding the negative emotions and chasing the positive ones may seem like the most reasonable thing to do, this is rarely the case.
In today’s reality chasing the positive emotions has you procrastinating on your work and indulging on unhealthy habits. Avoiding the negative emotions keeps you in your comfort zone, hindering your growth. It could stop you from repairing relationships and from building the career that you want.
Emotions usually are short-lived. They come and go in the matter of seconds. However when an emotion is influenced by memories, beliefs and thoughts, it grows into a feeling.
For example when your manager compliments your work it sparks positive emotions of joy and appreciation. Your brain interprets the situation as a validation of your abilities and as a result you feel more confident.
Say your manager criticizes your work. This triggers a mix of negative emotions, like shame and anger. Your brain connects this to your own insecurities, leaving you feeling inadequate and incapable.
If you pay no attention to the feelings, and only take the feedback, you will think of ways to improve your work and learn from your mistakes. If you start focusing on the way that criticism made you feel, this puts you in a bad place. You start recalling other times people have criticized your work, enforcing feelings of failure and self-doubt.
Both situations may result in you avoiding challenging projects in order to avoid making a mistake. This will take away your chances of learning and growing.
The ability to endure the negative emotions and not let them stop you from growing and achieving your goals, is what success is built on.
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