What Is… an Emotion

Emotion wheel revolving around sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful
Feeling Wheel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is emotion.

This may seem like a rather obvious topic; after all, we all have emotions. But there’s actually more than meets the eye, so I thought it would be interesting to look a little closer.

Emotions are linked to bodily sensations and what’s going on in the nervous system. Feelings are a subjective mental experience of emotions, while mood states are longer-lasting than emotions, and aren’t linked to contextual factors in the same way.

There have been many different approaches to understanding what an emotion is that have come from fields like philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. In Stoicism, for example, emotions are considered false judgments.

Components of emotions

Several components of emotional experiences have been described, although there isn’t a consensus as to whether they’re essential to experiencing an emotion. These components include:

  • evaluation of what’s going on in our environment
  • physiological reaction (such as increased heart rate)
  • phenomenological component (a feeling)
  • outward expression of emotion
  • a mental/cognitive element
  • behaviour

Universal emotions

Psychologist Paul Ekman identified six universal emotional states that were associated with facial recognition across multiple cultures. The original six were anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Over time, more have been identified, including awe, amusement, embarrassment, and relief.

These universal emotions served an evolutionary purpose, and they’re generated by the more primitive parts of the brain, including the amygdala. They helped our caveman ancestors to stay alive and procreate.

Primary and secondary emotions

Robert Plutchik proposed eight primary emotions that could be combined or modified to form others. He came up with the colour wheel shown below.

Plutchik's wheel of emotions

Secondary emotions arise from cognitive appraisals of primary emotions, based on things like whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant and mild or intense. These don’t occur as quickly and automatically as primary responses. Different cognitive appraisals can lead to the same sensations being interpreted in very different ways. While it’s pretty hard to rein in primary emotions, cognitive appraisals offer a lot more wiggle room for change.

While facial expressions are a way to communicate an emotion, they also influence emotional states. This is the idea behind the half-smile skill in DBT and the suggested reason why Botox in the frown lines has shown some benefit in depression.

Emotional responses

The Atlas of Emotions, which came from a partnership between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, describes a timeline of emotional responses. It includes

  • trigger: this refers to the contextual factors that bring on an emotion, and how we interpret them (this is different from a trauma trigger that prompts re-experiencing)
  • experience: this includes both feelings and physical sensations
  • response: what we do as a result of the emotion we’ve experienced

Certain responses tend to occur more with certain emotional states. For example, fear may lead people to avoid, withdraw, freeze, or worry, while anger may lead people to yell or argue. Emotional saturation occurs when we’re too caught up in the emotion to be able to respond in a thoughtful way, so instead, responses may be more automatic and instinctive.

What I find particularly interesting is that there’s no one way of understanding what an emotion is. For all that’s known about our worlds, there’s so much that’s unknown.


There’s more on emotions in the post Identifying Emotions.

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

26 thoughts on “What Is… an Emotion”

  1. “Emotional saturation occurs when we’re too caught up in the emotion to be able to respond in a thoughtful way, so instead, responses may be more automatic and instinctive.”

    I have never before seen symptomatic Borderline response to emotional overload described so eloquently. Brava, Bella! ✨💕✨

    1. I think it’s got some good skills and concepts. Taken as a whole, it’s not necessarily going to be useful for everyone, particularly people who don’t have BPD, but it lends itself well to picking and choosing the bits and pieces that work for people with other mental health issues.

  2. Understanding what we feel and how we respond is such an important piece in moving forward. It is an intricate process, for certain. As always, your ability to make the complex sensible is admired.

  3. Thanks for the deep discussion on emotions. The colour wheel looks fascinating!

    Emotions make us human… make our life colourful. If not managed well, they brings challenges to ourselves and others.

    By the way, among these, I value serenity the most <3

  4. Interesting the emotions that are associated with facial recognition. The Ekman collaboration with the Dalai Lama was also interesting, and somewhat unexpected. I’d never seen the Plutchik wheel before. The gradations are very interesting.

          1. That makes some sense. I’ve always remembered what a Buddhist teacher told me once. “Emotions should neither be suppressed nor indulged, but merely acknowledged.” If that’s the ideal (?) I and most people I know definitely fall short of it.

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