Much like healthcare workers, grocery clerks, and delivery drivers, emotions are essential. They’re also messy, confusing, frustrating… and seemingly impossible to decode.
Avoiding our feelings or hiding behind a string of emojis and clever memes isn’t the solution (although very satisfying). Understanding the emotions we feel, how to talk about them, and ways to navigate their complexities can help us crack this emotional code.
How many emotions are there, really? And how do we even begin to figure it all out? Thankfully, psychologists have done this work for us.
Psychologist and researcher Paul Ekman surveyed over 100 scientists, compiling their input to create the “Atlas of Emotions.” This was recently updated into a handy online tool and breaks emotions into 5 categories:
While a more recent study identified 27 categories of emotions exist, using Ekman’s guide is a simple way to help us key into our emotions.
While the different theories on core emotions each offer a unique and valid way to categorize our feelings, let’s hone in on Ekman’s list of 5 emotions.
We thrive in states of joy, love, and contentment, so it’s no surprise that the emotion we generally crave most is enjoyment. Enjoyment is experienced in positive situations, such as:
- when we’re doing something that brings us sensory pleasure
- feeling relaxed and peaceful (anyone else picturing a calming beach day?)
- being absorbed in an activity you love or find interesting
- when you’re feeling safe and secure
- moments of close connection to people you care about
Enjoyment is often physically expressed through:
- smiling or laughing
- holding ourselves in a relaxed posture
- speaking in an upbeat way
Because enjoyment is often linked to both physical and mental health, it’s important to check in with yourself when it feels like happiness is alluding you. “Happiness roadblocks” can lead to a variety of eventual health woes, such as depression, inflammation, low immunity, and a shorter lifespan.
There’s no shame in feeling blue, and we all feel sad sometimes. Often, sadness is triggered by something specific, like loss, rejection, or every Pixar movie ever made. Sadness can also unexpectedly creep up on us, for no tangible reason at all.
Sadness is often expressed through:
- frowns or furrowed brows
- a slumped posture
- low vocal tones
It can be tough to deal with sadness, but there are things you can do to shake it off:
- Perform an act of kindness. Give back, volunteer, or send a smile! Doing things for others or for the greater good can help lift our spirits when we’re feeling low.
- Allow yourself the space to mourn. Mourning is hard, but it’s an unavoidable part of the grieving process. No matter what you’re mourning, allowing yourself the time and permission to mourn in whatever way is best for you is essential to healing. Try talking about how you’re feeling, keeping a journal, or finding a creative outlet for your sadness.
- When in doubt, reach out! Reaching out to friends and family. can help in times of despair. While it’s not always easy to ask for help (or simply a listening ear), just remember: The people in your life love you and want you to be happy.
- Chat with a mental health professional. Sadness not going away or preventing you from doing normal day-to-day things? Therapy (especially psychotherapy) is a great option to get to the root of what’s causing your sadness.
Whether you want to hide from it or you thrive on it, fear is an emotion we’ve all experienced at some level. Fear kicks in when a threat (large or small) is perceived.
Fear can vary in intensity, based on the specific threat and your unique personality. We all may experience fear a little differently and at different levels, but there is no wrong way to experience it.
We often express fear by:
- widening our eyes
- attempting to make ourselves physically small (think: shrinking into a chair) or hiding from what we’re afraid of
- breathing with shallow, rapid breaths
- an increased heart rate
How can you overcome fear? Try these tips:
- Find a distraction. Dwelling on your fear can wreak havoc on your mental state. Rather than letting fear consume you and spending your time ruminating, look for something to take your mind off your fear. Try losing yourself in a book (or audiobook), jamming to some energizing tunes, popping in your favorite feel-good film, listening to a podcast, or going for a run.
- Let’s get logical (logical!). It can help to evaluate fear with a critical eye. Ask yourself: Can I do anything about this? What’s the worst that can happen? Could [insert cause of fear] actually harm me? Approaching our fear from a logical standpoint can help make it more manageable, thus making us less afraid.
- Face it head on. Sometimes, the best way to overcome your fears is to confront them. Rather than hiding away from what scares us (which can actually make fears worse), approach it head on — safely, of course! It’s okay to take baby steps with this approach. Afraid of driving after a fender bender? Try taking the car for a spin around the block, then drive a little further each day.
- Talk about your fears. Try talking to a therapist to work through your fears or to see if a deeper issue is at play.
While anger may conjure up negative connotations (the sound “grrrr” is right in the word!), it’s a perfectly normal emotion. Anger generally rears its head when we face an unjust or unfair situation, which can make us feel defenseless or threatened.
Anger can be physically expressed by:
- frowning or glaring
- turning away from the object of our anger or standing strong against it
- the face or body reddening
- yelling or “growling”
- actions like hitting or kicking
Anger can provoke us to take negative actions, like physical violence or verbal vitriol. Rather than negatively react, try to manage your anger in a positive and productive manner, like:
- Look for a solution. Anger can make us feel as helpless as Eliza Hamilton, but looking at how we can correct or improve the source of our anger can bring positive results. Can’t think of anything? Seek another perspective. If others are involved, have a respectful conversation and get their perspective on how you can work through it together. Or turn to someone you trust for an outside eye on the situation.
- Step away. Often when we’re too close to or involved in a situation, we end up making it worse. By taking a moment to step away from the source of your anger, you can approach it with a calmer mind later. Try taking a walk, listening to music, or focusing on an activity you enjoy. After you’ve removed yourself from what’s causing your anger, take a moment to think about your anger and what you can do to remedy the situation.
- Find constructive ways to express your anger. Many of us don’t like conflict, but avoiding what’s upsetting us can make the feelings fester and get worse, which can not only impact ourselves, but our relationship with others. Look for ways to communicate your anger while remaining respectful and calm. Approaching conflict in this constructive way will help you work through it rather than work around it.
- Therapy. If you find your anger is becoming a problem or is too difficult to manage, consider working with a therapist to find tools and strategies to deal with your anger.
Disgust is often provoked by unpleasant or unwelcome situations, particularly those we may wish to avoid.
Ways we often show disgust include:
- turning away from what disgusts us
- avoiding eye contact
- wrinkling the nose
- physically cringing
Feelings of disgust can become problematic if left on their own. It can lead you to dislike people, places, or situations that aren’t harmful. Disgust can even make you dislike yourself.
Looking to work through your disgust? Try these helpful tricks:
- Slowly expose yourself to what disgusts you. Gradually confronting the object of your disgust can help you overcome the feeling. Don’t like bugs but want to try your hand at camping? Start with taking short hikes through the woods or first camping out in your own backyard.
- Practice compassion. The things that disgust us often make us uncomfortable, and that’s OK. But learning to understand the things that cause discomfort can help us to overcome how we feel about them. Try spending time with something that you don’t like, to gain a new perspective on it. Babies freak you out? Spend time with that friend who has a new little one. Offer to help with diaper changes and spit cleanup.
- Don’t focus on someone, but on something in their behavior. When it comes to the people we find off-putting, it’s often their actions that disgust us, not the people themselves. You may find yourself withdrawing from or avoiding them, or even getting angry with them. Instead, look at what in their behavior is causing your disgust and try to find ways to overcome it. Your best friend smokes like a chimney? Instead of making snide remarks, try sharing with them that you’re concerned with their health and that you’re there for them.
Emotions are at the core of all we do and can be broken down into 5 basic emotions: Enjoyment, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust.
Learning how to understand and articulate these core emotions gives us the tools to overcome challenges, develop stronger emotional health, and help how we interact with ourselves and with others.
Should you find that your emotions are too overwhelming or that you’re unable to cope with them yourself, speaking to a therapist or mental health professional can help. They can work with you to develop strategies to overcome what you may be facing.