Understanding emotions and feelings

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It came as no surprise, in May 2016, when the Dalai Lama and psychologist Paul Ekman – the man who helped the Pixar team with Inside Out – launched a digital atlas of emotions. For the two men, it’s about helping people to understand their emotions and to reach a state of calmness. They want the map of the mind to be utilised in the same way that travellers rely on maps to navigate safely through a new town.

While this might sound a little disturbing at first – or maybe a little too esoteric for those who are not used to the Dalai Lama’s approach to life – but the atlas comes as a response to a common problem in our modern society, namely being able to describe what you feel.

Emotions are not new – far from it – but they have become one of the least understood elements of social life.

In fact, if you were to ask people around you, half of them wouldn’t even know whether they are happy or sad. Unfortunately, not knowing what you feel means that it’s more difficult to deal with new situations, with hurtful behaviours, and with other people too.  

What are emotions?

It can seem troubling at first, but emotions start with a chemical reaction. They are of course a lot more complex than a reaction between neurotransmitters, but they can also be chemically reproduced using only chemical components. Dopamine is one of the most famous neurotransmitters and is made out of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Dopamine is involved in improving your focus, and your memory – a lack of dopamine is common in Parkinson's disease and the inability to create new memories. It is also connected to positive emotions. Serotonin is another common neurotransmitter, also made out of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. But contrary to dopamine, serotonin is commonly linked to negative emotions as a lack of it can create depression, anxiety, and irritability. Both are produced in several areas of the brain, but they can also be synthesised to treat chemical dysfunctions. But are your feelings nothing more than an exchange of chemicals?  

Understand what you feel

Knowing the chemical background of your emotions doesn’t give you the key to understanding your feelings. Far from it, in fact. More and more people find it difficult to name their emotions. Unfortunately, it’s not only a matter of vocabulary, but it’s also a matter of not understanding what they are going through and how to react. Like this confused user on 7cups.com says “I’m having emotions, ” but I don’t know what they are. Without being able to organise your feelings, it’s a little like walking in the dark. You only experience the bumps and the pain each time something hits you, but you have no idea where you are going. Maybe it’s the kind of things that the Dalai Lama could help with. Sometimes, all you need is someone to tell you how you feel so that you can get on with it and follow the emotion.

Managing new situations

So when do your emotions throw you off balance? More often than not, it’s when you experience something that you didn’t know before. It can be anything from moving home to starting a new job. What is important to understand is that you often feel more than just one emotion at a time and that consequently, it’s perfectly possible to be both sad and happy at the time. Picture yourself moving home to a new place you’ve never been before. Of course, it’s going to be stressful at first: there’s a lot to organise when you move, from the paperwork to packing your belongings in boxes, without mentioning the cleaning of the previous place. The closer the date of the moving gets, the more anxious you feel about it. Anxiety, contrary to stress, is a handicapping feeling. It can be handicapping and even force you towards poor decisions. But at the same time, you’ll also feel excited at the prospect of starting something new and making it work elsewhere. This can give you hope and a lot of energy to get things done. Excitement is a great emotion, and it can help you through stressful moments. Being able to play your emotions against each other is key to manage new situations in your life.

Helping others to manage their emotions

Not everyone is confused when it comes to their emotions. Some people find it easy to understand feelings and to create a sensible path in the middle of emotional chaos. This is especially true in the medical sector, where most of the staffnurse.com roles expect applicants to be able to provide emotional guidance to their patients. It’s not about annihilating all emotions, but it’s about knowing how to manage people when they are sad, afraid, angry or simply nervous. The main problem with emotions is not feeling them; it’s what they can push someone to do. Consequently, in healthcare where someone’s behaviour could put their health at risk, it’s extremely important to have specialists who can intervene to manage difficult behaviours. This kind of emotional management is also helpful in the education sector – where teachers need to help their teenage students go through the curriculum at a time of huge physical and emotional chaos.

Don’t let anyone else in control

Understanding your emotions, and understand how other people feel is often the key to recognise unhealthy emotional relationships. Emotional abuse, for instance, is a common issue in couples’ relationship. It is often the result of both partners allowing the tension to build until the abuser can take control over the relationship. While this is often seen in love relationships, it is also common between colleagues and friends. The abusive circle is difficult to break, especially because it is difficult to identify for those who are in it. However, in any relationship, it is important to remember that you should not fear the other person’s reaction. Typically, when you are under the control of an abuser, your behaviour is dictated by the abuser’s will. What he or she says becomes truth, and you find your sense of self in his or her words only. In this case, it’s not about understanding your emotions, but it's about understanding what triggers these. In any abusive relationship, the trigger is not you, but the abuser’s behaviour. You feel good about yourself because the abuser says you were good. You feel bad because you’ve been told you were bad. If this is the case, it’s time to rebuild your confidence with professional help and to leave the relationship.

Don’t fear your emotions

A lot of people don’t always see the difference between being in control with their emotions and being afraid of experiencing emotions. When you are in control, it’s your personal experience of life that dictates what you feel. When you choose to control your emotions to reduce them – such as forcing yourself not to cry when you are sad, for example – it’s an indication of fear. Experiencing emotions is part of life, and showing them is no sign of vulnerability. Everybody is equipped to feel joy, sadness, anger, and excitement. Choosing to express only positive feelings is not a healthy way to behave. It only means that you refuse to show how you feel. But it doesn’t stop you from feeling. Embrace your emotions instead.

Emotions are a difficult subject that people prefer to avoid for fear of not knowing how to deal with it. The only way to make the most of your emotions is to allow yourself to feel. Let the sadness flow, let the joy shine. As you do, you learn to manage them and to help others do the same.