Understanding Emotions, Basics of Human Feelings

Author: Randeep Singh / go to all articles on Yoga Concepts

The word emotion is derived from

the Latin word “Emovere, or Emouvoir”,

which means to be moved,

to get excited or agitated, or to stir up.

Emotions are defined as consciously perceived

feelings and their objective manifestations.

They result from sensory perceptions or thinking, and usually arise suddenly.

They do not arise as ready made habitual responses.

There are 3 components in any emotion.

  1. Cognitive – sensory awareness of the emergency situation.
  2. Affect – Feeling part of the emotion, eg. conscious feeling of being happy, excited or afraid.
  3. Conative – motor or behavioral aspects of emotion

The conative component includes three aspects to it.

  • Aggressive or withdrawal of the organism as a whole, i.e. attack, strike, or runway responses.
  • Facial expressions, e.g. smiling, crying, frowning, tensing of the muscles.
  • Autonomic responses like change in the size of the pupil, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, secretion of saliva, sweat and tears, urge to urinate etc. Emotional behavior is not a stereo-typed automatic activity, but is a complex response which differs from individual to individua.

Centers of Emotions in the Brain


The centres of various emotions may be divided into three parts.

  1. Cognition or sensory centres – These are situated in the various sensory areas and their association areas in the cortex of the brain, e.g. auditory cortex, visula cortex, sensory cortex etc. here one becomes aware of emergency situations.
  2. Centres for affects or feelings – The feelings of various emotions like anger, delight, greed, etc. probably originate in the orbital gyrus, cingular gyrus, and hippocampus, i.e. in the limbic cortex. Stimulation of certain nuclei in the amygdaloid body gives rise to pain, rage and escape phenomena, where as the stimulation of other nuclei in the amygdaloid gives rise to a sensation of pleasure.
  3. Behavioral or motor centres of emotions – The limbic cortex together with the hypothalamus and thalamus controls the various autonomic responses. The limbic cortex together with motor cortex controls the motor behavior of the individual.

Fear, anger, and other emotions are meant primarily to withstand the emergency situations and are associated with generalized sympathetic overactivity.

Funkenstien showed that autonomic responses of fear and anger were caused by release of epinephrine and norepinephrine respectively in the blood stream. The pleasurable emotions that arise as a result of the satisfaction of such basic drives as hunger and sex result from the activity of the parasympathetic system.

The prefrontal lobes represent the highest centers by which a man controls his emotions by logical thinking.

Functions and Disadvantages of Emotions

Emotions often serve as aids in helping us to meet emergency situations. They do so by helping to sustain activity over a longer period, by utilizing our maximum energy for short periods, and by lessening sensitivity to pain. For example, A person is able to carry unusually heavy objects out of the house on fire due to the rush of emotions.

A person experiencing fear may be able to go for long periods without sleep. Emotions do not determine the goals, but are generated to suit these goals. Everyone undergoes a series of varied emotional experiences like anger, delight, elation, affection, fear, annoyance, worry, jealousy, dejection and shame. All these emotions play a vital role in our lives.

In daily living nagging worries and petty annoyances play a more important role in disturbing us than anger and fear. Worry and anxiety can cause a student to forget simple facts at the time of examination. by using proper techniques one can stop worrying. Stronger emotions may hinder effective action. Panic makes a person useless for any type of reaction. Inspite of all the disadvantages, feelings have their own importance too.

Emotions, Moods, and Psychosomatic Illness

Sustained emotional states are called moods. Without emotions human beings will be like machines. The feelings or emotional aspects of life lie close to the value and significance of life itself. Emotions are closely linked with physical health.

Sustained emotional states are responsible for a majority of disease states e.g. peptic ulcer, hypertension, asthma, migraine etc. Emotional outbursts act as trigger mechanisms for diseases like epilepsy, asthma, cerebral hemorrhage, etc. An emotional shock may lead to sudden cessation of life.

In the s called “voodoo death” of African tribes, the witch doctor curses a man with death. The man dies within 24 hours owing to the horror of death. In these cases adrenaline is secreted in large amounts, the heart rate goes up and the patient dies owing to congestive cardiac failure.

Very often emotions are social in nature. They may be transmitted by one individual to a group and sometimes even to a entire nation. This phenomenon is known as “Mass Hysteria” e.g. The whole audience witnessing a drama bursts into laughter even though many of them may not have understood the joke involved.

During a war the entire nation develops war mania. Accomplishment or failure to satisfy one’s needs or achieve one’s goals or any condition which blocks or expedites these, gives rise to emotions.

Pleasure or happiness in turn give rise to various emotions like contentment, satisfaction, joy, elation, delight, love, affection, hopefulness, greed, curiosity, and zeal. pain and sorrow in turn give rise to various emotions or emotional states like grief, depression, gloom, fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, deceit, disgust, envy, cruelty, enmity, revenge, worry, and anxiety.

Factors which Modify Emotions

Age – A loud, vigorous and prolonged cry of a hungry baby, smiling or contented faces when offered milk and presence of startle reflex following a loud noise indicate the presence of basic emotions like anger, joy, and fear respectively.

In children emotions are easily aroused by tangible wants that impinge directly upon them e.g. loss of pencil, pet, or toy. As one grows older more and more objects, situations and anticipated events have emotional value. A mature person has good control over his emotions.

Sex – Though prone to emotional outbursts at all ages, girls tend to show a greater degree of emotional maturity than boys.

Intelligence and Emotions – A person with greater intellect develops and has more emotional scope. He is now better able to perceive both the tragic and the comic in life around him.

He is able to sense the omens of future calamities earlier. He is able to acquire a wider range of interests which the circumstances of life may block or bless. An intelligent man thus has a better ability and capacity to control his emotions by training his mind.

Culture – Emotional behavior is also determined by cultural norms and values.

Many of our existing concepts of maturity are determined by cultural expectations. An emotionally immature person gets angry over petty causes and gets involved in daily or even hourly crisis.

He breaks down easily under emotional stress or tension. A emotionally mature person has the ability to control or delay the emotional response. he is able to bear tension and face adversity without loss of faith in himself.

A person who is not emotionally involved in a situation or with persons, does not feel obliged or get influenced or tied down. hence, he can take the right decisions independently. He can adjust well in society.

Here I will discuss in detail different types of emotions.

Love as an Emotion

Love may be defined as an intense liking for another individual, with readiness for sacrifice. True love expects no returns.

The word love is used in a broad sense as shown in the following table.

Emotions, Type of Love

Love is infectious, if you love others, others will naturally love you back. Hence a wise person loves the entire universe.

Sorrow as an Emotion

Sorrow follow the loss or separation of objects or persons dear to one. In sorrow the reaction of the body is that of withdrawal. The person becomes apathetic and does not even enjoy good food. The person prefers to be alone or be consoled by close associates.

Fear as an Emotion

Fear is the feeling or affective response to an actual or imaginary current external danger. It subsides with the elimination of the threatening situation. Fear is a form of self protective withdrawal or flight from any circumstance which threatens a person’s well being or what he regards as his well being.

Reactions seen in fear

Fear is accompanied by increase in the heart and respiratory rates, “goose flesh”, pallor, sweating, dilation of pupils, and dryness of the mouth. Muscular tremors occur. Thus sympathetic and somatic activities are stimulated within the body.

Classification of fears

  1. Irrational fears – Here the person anticipates the possibility of danger which is unlikely. Irrational fears are quite common in children. Strange persons, objects, and situations that the child fears are often imaginary and harmless.
  2. Healthy rational fears – Fears that serve a useful purpose may be termed as healthy fears. e.g. running away from fire or any other dangerous situation.

Factors which control susceptibility to fear

  1. Fear shown by parents or teachers – If parents are afraid of darkness, children will be naturally afraid of darkness.
  2. Physical weakness or handicaps – Illness or physical weakness lowers one’s capacity to withstand frightful situations. A deaf and blind person would be more afraid that other people in the same frightening situation.
  3. Stresses in the process of development – If a child undergoes a series of frightful situations during his developing years, he has a greater chance of becoming an anxious adult, full of fears.

To overcome fear, one must try to get rid of the cause of fear. If the fear causing situation cannot be avoided one must try to analyze and often one would realize its relative innocuousness. Rather than thinking of the situation one must distract one’s attention by keeping busy. Chanting the name of God as in Mantra Yoga, is very helpful as it works on faith and suggestion principle.

The sense of helplessness increases the intensity of fear. To counter this one must learn to develop self confidence. A set of yoga techniques for improving self esteem can actually help in this area. Once the confidence is boosted one learns to master, or take control of the fear causing situation.

Emotions: Anger

Anger is an aggressive response to a threatening situation or to the feeling or frustration.

Causes of Anger

When one’s desires, expectations, ideas, actions, speech, pride, self-esteem are under attack, one gets angry. Any physical threat to a person or his dear one’s also incites anger.

Manifestation of Anger

  • Outburst of rage vented on others like shouting, abusing, beating, and even killing.
  • Expressing anger on self like crying, head banging, breath holding spells and temper tantrums, as seen in children.
  • When one is not able to express his anger openly, one may retaliate in the form of hostility, prejudice, back biting, bullying, cheating, taking revenge etc.
  • Psychosomatic mechanisms – irritability, emotional susceptibility and hysteria are the psychosomatic mechanisms in response to anger. Yoga has a set of techniques for healing hysterical attacks which can lower the damage which may culminate from the same.
  • Body reactions – Flushing of face, Dilation of pupils, tremors, sweating, teeth clenching, or teeth grinding known as Bruxism, clenching of hands, increase in respiratory and heart rates, and spike in blood pressure are the manifestations of anger. Most of these are of sympathetic origin. In anger the metabolic rate and the adrenaline secretions are increased. It may act as a precipitatory factor for epilepsy, intracranial hemorrhage and insanity.

Centre for Anger

In animals hypothalamic stimulation is associated with rage reaction. Amygadala and limbic cortex exert inhibitory effect on these hypothalamic mechanisms.

Factors affecting susceptibility to Anger

  1. Variations in culturally sanctioned channels of aggression. The threshold and manifestation of anger differ in different cultures, societies and families.
  2. Mental constitution – Children ad adults by constitution may be irritable, hot-tempered, or calm and quiet.
  3. Age – Children usually get angry easily and are mostly unable to control the rage.
  4. Fatigue, sleeplessness, hunger and illness increases one’s susceptibility to anger.
  5. Psychological factors.
  • Family Constitution – Presence of many siblings and adults in the family or many visitors will increase the chances of friction leading to anger.
  • Assignments or tasks which are difficult for one to carry out.
  • A tendency on the part of elders to nag or be critical of their children or be over-anxious about small matters related to them. E.g. when a four year old child steals a pencil eraser.
  • past experiences of acquiring an object by the show of anger.

Interplay of Fear and Anxiety

Given the similar level of challenge in a given situation, strong opposition will led to fear complex while a weaker opposition leads to anger. Hence a strong person or a person power stands more chances of getting angry.

How Do you control Anger

Today a number of techniques for controlling anger are available, I will list the basics one here for your understanding.

Diet – Pungent and spicy food along with tea and coffee have a stimulating effect on the body and the mind and must be avoided. Sweets, milk, ghee, cold drinks and ice creams have a soothing effect on mind.

Environment – Pleasant environments like a hill station, air conditioned room, living near nature and in company of good friends helps one to manage one’s anger the healthy way. A cold shower can instantly calm down an angry person.

Medicines – Tranquilizers and brain tonics help one to control one’s anger.

Logical thinking and control of anger – In anger one loses one’s ability to think logically and hence one acts irrationally. This can lead to long term consequences. The bad effects of anger are more on the self than on the person one is angry with.

Anger, if channeled well, or a bit of aggression is necessary for achieving one’s targets to some extent. The understanding and implementation of philosophical thought along with some meditation help control destructive aspects of anger.

Emotions: Jealousy

Jealousy is an emotion in which one cannot tolerate the praise, higher status, good qualities, wealth, beauty etc. of others. Comparison and competition are the starting points of jealousy.

One is never jealous of a person one has never come in direct or indirect contact with. Jealousy leads to frustration and one tends to retaliate in the form of hostility, prejudice, back-biting, bullying etc. Long term jealousy may result in insanity or homicide. Rather than being jealous of others, it is better to appreciate their good qualities and try to acquire them.

Emotions: Anxiety

Anxiety is an uneasy state of mind in relation to impending or anticipated stressful situations. This is a vague, and disagreeable emotional state which is variously described as “uneasy”, “tense”, “keyed-up”, “under-pressure”, “apprehension” etc.

When any type of frustration or conflict occurs, one develop tension and anxiety. Anxiety is nature’s way of activating the body and the mind, to foretell and overcome the cause of anxiety.

A lot of people feel anxious about something all the time. Acute anxiety is associated with altered rhythm of respiration, increased heart rate, pallor, dryness of mouth, increased sweating, trembling and feeling of weakness.

In this state the generalized over-activity of both motor and sympathetic systems often occur throughout the body. Epinephrine circulating in the blood as a result of sympathetic activity directly activates reticular activating system.

This maintains extreme degree of wakefulness and alertness which characterize anxiety, tension, and mania.

Causes of Anxiety

The stress situations giving rise to anxiety may be real or imaginary, rational or irrational.

  1. Illnesses. fatigue, physical injury and unpleasant environment conditions.
  2. Unpleasant working conditions or absence of job security.
  3. Fear of rejection or disapproval.
  4. Inner conflicts – to do or not to do something.
  5. Setting goals too high
  6. Anything that goes against a person’s possessions or prestige.

Development of Anxiety

It is difficult to say whether anxiety exists in early infancy. Possibly, not receiving milk on time, or not getting adequate clothing when the weather is chilly, are the initial stresses that make the baby tense and anxious. As the baby learns to identify the mother, separation from her leads to anxiety. In children disapproval is the origin of discomfort and anxiety.

Adults develop anxiety when faced with an imagined, anticipated or real threat to his self or dear ones. It can concern his or their possessions, pride, prestige, resect, honor, status, and self esteem.

Factors modifying Anxiety

Anxiety and physical state – In a given situation, a weak, diseased or an old person will be more anxious than a strong, healthy or a young person. Regular practice of yoga for alleviating anxiety can help in this direction.

Anxiety and self – Self confidence helps to reduce the intensity of anxiety. The more helpless and inadequate e feel about a situation or event, the more likely we are to experience anxiety.

Anxiety and the level of intelligence – Intelligence , or buddhi, plays an important role in regulating the level of anxiety in an individual. An unintelligent person cannot anticipate danger and hence is unlikely to develop anxiety frequently. However an intelligent person, thought can sense the impending danger, can easily find a way out of an anxiety causing situation.

Psychological reactions to Chronic Anxiety

  1. In case the stress is not too much , one attempts to master the situation, and get rid of the cause of anxiety.
  2. If the goals are set too high, one gets a feeling of despair and a fear of disappointing oneself and one’s family by not keeping up to the high expectations.
  3. A person develops fear reaction to protect himself against reality.
  4. Those who are overwhelmed by anxiety regress and react as if they are children. They are unable to maintain levels of emotional stability they must have previously achieved.
  5. Phobias – Anxiety may also be expressed in the form of phobia. Phobia is defined as a irrational. persistent, and recurrent fear of an object or a situation which in realty is hardly a threat.
  6. Neurosis – Hysteria.
  7. Gross personality disintegration accompanied by apathy and insanity.

Relation between Anxiety and Achievement

Minimum anxiety is helpful and stimulates one’s efforts to achieve one’s goal e.g. a student may study hard and concentrate better to pass or stand first in an examination.

However, with high levels of anxiety concentration and the performance at the examination may suffer. On the other hand, if the student does not have any anxiety of examination, he may not study at all.

One should take advantage of one’s anxiety and intensify one’s efforts to solve a problem. People stimulated by rational anxiety become more efficient. However, sound reasoning and judgement should always prevail over anxiety in order to use it more productively.

Frustration as one of the Emotions

Frustration is a state of mental depression where one’s desires, needs and goals are not fulfilled in the expected time and manner.

Reactions to Frustration

A frustrated person may react in one of the following manners.

  1. Aggressive response in the form of anger, hostility, prejudice, back-biting etc.
  2. Withdrawal response – The person gives up on his attempts to achieve the target. He feels apathetic, depressed and may develop guilt complex, inferiority complex, or may commit suicide.
  3. He may try to rationalize the situation and try to find another solution.

To avoid frustration it is better to preplan one’s target, not to set the target beyond one’s capacity, and later to work hard for it till one succeeds.

Greed as one of the Emotions

sThe inordinate craving for more and more material possessions such as money, objects of one’s liking etc. is called greed. A greedy person is wholly preoccupied and will not hesitate in using unfair means to satisfy his greed. This leads to unhappiness.

Joy as an Emotion

The feeling of joy is a combination of many components: contentment, pleasure and happiness; sense of well being, pride, interest in people and surroundings, pleasant anticipation, laughter etc.

The feeling of happiness has an anabolic (constructive) effect on the body and the mind. It helps to strengthen the mind. Mind and brain are different concepts. A happy home and surroundings are important for the development of the mind. A happy state of mind is important for constructive thinking and creative ability.

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