Dialectical Behavioral Therapy/Emotion Regulation Skills/Understanding the function of emotions

The Function of Emotions

Understanding the function of emotions and help you understand why you do what you do. Intense emotions communicate to others and motivate behavior. By understanding the function of emotions, you can better understand why you do what you do.

Emotions communicate to (and influence) others

Facial expressions are a “hard-wired” part of emotions, i.e. you are born with them. Both the expression of emotion and the understanding of emotion are part of our biological makeup. In primitive societies and among animals, facial expressions communicate messages without words. Research shows that in all cultures, the same facial expressions are linked to the same basic emotions. Some examples of what is communicated include smiles (happiness), frowns (sadness), scowls (anger), wide-eyed & open-mouthed (surprise), wrinkled nose (disgust), dimpled cheek & eye-roll (contempt), and wide-eyed & thin-lipped (fear). Facial expressions communicate these emotions faster than words.

Both verbal and nonverbal forms of emotional expressions have an automatic effect on others. For example, an infant reacts spontaneously to an adult’s smile or look of fright. This automatic reaction serves infants well as it helps them understand communications from their caregivers intuitively.

When physical expressions of emotion (facial expressions, movement, gesture, touch, posture, voice tone) and what a person says don’t go together, most people will trust the nonverbal expressions over the verbal ones. You are more likely to be fully understood if you make your verbal message congruent with your nonverbal message. If your nonverbal emotional expressions are not accurate indicators of what you are experiencing, then your emotions will be misread and your message will be misunderstood. The mismatch of verbal and nonverbal communications can lead to confusion and ineffectual communication.

Many people learn to inhibit or hide their expression of emotions, at least some of the time. One problem of hiding emotions is that other people do not know how upset a person is, if she doesn’t let somebody see how she feels. When it is important to communicate to others, or send them a clear message, it can be very hard to change emotions.

  • If Jane thinks Kathy is in the wrong and wants her to know it, Jane may try to communicate her anger nonverbally. Jane may frown, scowl, and pout or remain angry until Kathy gets the message. (The alternative here is that Jane would explain her displeasure to Kathy using verbal and nonverbal means, and then go back to normal).

The communication of emotions influences others, whether a person intends it or not.

  • If you meet someone who is warm and friendly and have a favorable first impression, you are more likely to do a favor for them later and feel good about doing it.
  • A supervisor expressing disappointment to an employee may cause the employee to work harder to win her approval.
  • If a person complains about a problem, people are less likely to ignore it.
  • Expressing worthlessness, hopelessness, and agonizing sadness may influence a therapist, or another person, to take away the pain. (So the hope goes).
  • Expressed anger may stop another’s behavior.

It can be extremely helpful to consciously study how people express emotions through words, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on. Doing so leads you to see all the subtle cues people pass back and forth as they bid and respond to one another’s bids. A bid is a fundamental unit of emotional communication – a greeting, question, gesture or any expression that connects you to another person. A response to a bid is an answer to somebody’s request for emotional connection, usually positive (receptive) or negative (indifference). With awareness of how bids communicate, you can ensure that the messages you send via body language match the messages you send with your spoken language.

Research has shown that feeling and acting positive has benefits beyond just feeling pleasant. Positive emotions actually make it easier for you to have a better life. More positive emotions lead to building friendships, love, better physical health and greater achievement. When we are in a positive mood, people like us better, friendship and cooperation are easier. Falling in love and feeling love are quite positive moods. Positive feelings signal win-win encounters, as in being in love, making a friend, and the benefits of exercise. Under the effects of positive mood we are more creative. We are open to new ideas when we’re happy. We are more likely to have new experiences when we are feeling upbeat and optimistic.

Emotions organize and prepare a person to act

Behavior that is necessary for survival is often motivated by strong emotions, therefore quite efficient. Survival behavior in animals includes the fight or flight response, an automatic response which prepares them to instantly react to save yourself from danger.

Anger → Fight Fear → Flight or Freeze

When every moment counts for survival, an automatically generated emotion-based behavior will take over by controlling the animal so thinking is unnecessary. The emotional response is immediate and instinctual. The action urge connected to specific emotions is hard-wired.

  • Fear motivates the animal to run away from a dangerous or predatory situation.
  • If there was no sadness at losing people, why go out and look for lost people or try to save people who are dying? Communities would die off if there were no sadness.
  • Students’ desire to reduce test anxiety motivates intense studying.
  • Some people are afraid to reduce guilt, because they are afraid that without guilt, they will start doing harmful things.
  • Anger is a very scary emotion: many people fear losing control if they act on their anger.

Feeling angry can make you feel like you are going to explode, strike, throw something or blow up. When you feel angry, you may feel like doing something painful to others. Behaviors like shouting, clenching fists, making aggressive gestures, slamming doors when storming away, or throwing things suggest violence. Therefore, it is not surprising that you feel uncomfortable when you feel angry.

Emotions function to communicate to ourselves: Emotions can be “self-validating”

Emotions are reactions to external or internal events or interpretations of events. These emotional reactions are like a signal or alarm that something psychological is happening. So emotions are a two-part process: the psychological part and the physical part. The physical part of emotion is easier to understand because they feel a certain way, for example, anger feels hot and fear feels like running away. The problem is the psychological part of an emotion, because it is often difficult to identify what about the situation set off an emotion. Emotions happen automatically without thinking about the situation. It is not unusual, to feel something and not know what set the emotion going.

People often ignore their unclear emotional responses to a situation simply because they can’t understand their psychological triggers. Putting emotional responses into words is a way to understand them. First, you have to observe the emotional experience or feel your feelings. Next, you put your experience into words by describing the feelings and the action urge. Finally, you make sense of what's going on with you putting the physical sensations with your psychological situation.

Through experience, you learn when to trust your emotional responses as useful information about the situation. “Listen to your gut instinct” means you pay attention to your emotional reaction and use it as a guide for your behavior. Likewise, when we say a person has a “good feel for the situation,” we are referring to the ability to use emotions as signals to guide behavior.

Peer-pressure often discourages people to think about their feelings. You may have been in a situation in which you didn't feel right about doing something but others told you to disregard your feelings (or wise mind) and you were "forced" to do it anyway.

As you know, intense emotions can interfere with an effective response to a situation. For example, fear motivates you to avoid life-threatening danger, but when you fearfully avoid a difficult situation you may be creating more problems for yourself. If you are able to examine your fear and see that it is not a life-or-death situation; you can overcome your avoidance. Sometimes, just thinking, “what is the worst that could happen?” will help you overcome the fear and do what you need to do.

When emotions are treated as if they were facts, reason serves the master of emotion. People often use their emotional reactions to other people and to events as information about the situation. Emotional reactions often determine your thoughts about the situation. A type of mood dependent behavior is mood dependent thinking, i.e. thinking that is determined by your mood. If you use emotions as the only source of information for your thinking, emotions are treated as facts: “if I feel incompetent, I am.” “If I get depressed when left alone, I shouldn’t be left alone.” “If I feel right about something, it is right.”

Mood dependent behavior is behavior determined by the current mood. For example, some people who feel depressed act depressed – they lie on the couch, isolate themselves, and don’t do things that they would enjoy. Then because they are acting in a way that is determined by depressed feelings they say to themselves, “I don't want to leave the house, I am going to stay on the couch and I don't care if the phone rings. I'm depressed!”

Another possible reaction to feelings of lethargy and isolation is to say to yourself, "I have to call my friends and get out of here otherwise I'm going to get really depressed."

An illustration of self-validating feelings]