We all have feelings. One moment we might feel happy, while the next, we might feel sad. And sometimes, we might feel scared. There’s plenty of other emotions in between, and we might even have mixed emotions — feeling more than one emotion at the same time.
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And while we use words like “sad,” “happy” and “scared” to describe how we feel, what does it really mean to have emotions?
Psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD, explains the five basic emotions and why it’s important to talk about them.
What are emotions?
Our emotions are complex. We can experience a wide range of emotions each day. Those emotions are defined as feeling or behaving a certain way typically because of the environment we’re in or toward specific things, events or situations.
For example, if your hometown soccer team loses a game, you might feel sadness and disappointment. Or if you’re celebrating your child’s birthday, you may feel happiness and joy.
While the idea of different emotions has been around — and studied — for centuries, during the 1970s, a psychologist and researcher defined a list of emotions that we use as the building blocks to our feelings.
And our ideas and views around emotions continues to evolve. In fact, research suggests that there are 27 different categories of emotions.
“Simply put, our emotions are how we feel about people, place, things or situations,” explains Dr. Childs. “Sometimes, we can have a physical reaction with our emotions. I often say emotions are not good or bad, they just are.”
5 basic emotions
The building blocks of emotions start with the following:
“No matter where you go in the world, these are pretty universal and you know what someone means when they use these words,” says Dr. Childs.
Dr. Childs dives a little deeper into each of the primary emotions, explaining how we might feel and how we might act.
Enjoyment is an emotion or feeling that many of us try to achieve in different ways throughout our lives. When we feel enjoyment, we’re relaxed and tend to smile and laugh.
Enjoyment typically means we’re engaging in a behavior or activity that gives us satisfaction. For example, reading a book or watching a favorite TV show can bring you enjoyment.
“The dictionary defines enjoyment as ‘the state or process of taking pleasure in something,’” says Dr. Childs. “Enjoyment is like people, very individualized. What one person finds enjoyable, another person may not. Enjoyment can be expressed in several ways such as a smile, a hug, dancing, playing, jumping up and down for joy, verbalized with shouts of joy or sitting in peace watching others enjoy themselves and being happy about that.”
Other words that are commonly used to describe enjoyment include:
We all tend to feel sad occasionally. And while we may be sad due to an event like a death in the family or the end of a relationship, there are also times where we may not understand why we’re feeling sadness.
If you’re sad, you may also feel the need to cry and withdraw from others. You may be described as quiet and reserved.
If your sadness is persistent or severe, it can turn into depression. Talking to a healthcare provider or therapist can help.
“We experience sadness differently for varied reasons. What makes one person sad, may not make another person sad,” relates Dr. Childs. “Sadness too is expressed in a multitude of ways to include a frown, tears, a solum look, desire to be alone, desire to be in silence with someone or it could look like nothing at all.”
Other words that are commonly used to describe sadness include:
If you’re in an unwelcomed or unpleasant situation, you may feel disgust. Disgust tends to happen because of something you dislike — from something as simple as a type of food to more complex feelings of dislike for a certain person.
In most cases, disgust is used to protect yourself from those situations or things you want to avoid. But you need to be careful that disgust doesn’t become your go-to reaction in situations that aren’t considered bad for you.
“I often think of disgust as coming from the gut, something that turns your stomach,” notes Dr. Childs. “It can be expressed by a sound or look of disapproval.”
Other words that are commonly used to describe disgust include:
While you might easily feel fear when watching that true crime documentary or thinking about giving a work presentation, this emotion can range from mild to severe based on what and how you perceive a threat.
Fear is essential to our survival, kick-starting our sympathetic nervous system, which is also known as our fight-or-flight response.
When we experience fear, our bodies become tense, we may start to sweat and we can feel our heart rate increase. But we also become more alert as our body prepares to run or react.
“Fear is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong — not only is something wrong, but I want to get out of here to avoid this thing,” explains Dr. Childs. “It can be expressed in many ways to include physical manifestations such as heart palpitations, shaking hands, sweating, hypervigilance, crying or fleeing the situation.”
Other words that are commonly used to describe fear include:
You can typically tell when someone is angry. You can spot aggressive behavior like frowning or glaring at you and even yelling. Someone’s face can even turn red and they may kick, hit, punch or throw objects.
And while anger is generally seen as a negative emotion, much like fear, it’s part of our survival kit, playing a part in our fight-or-flight response when we encounter a perceived threat.
“Anger can be defined in a lot of ways, and it can be a go-to emotion for some people because anger says, ‘Listen to me!’” says Dr. Childs.
“It gets people’s attention. For those of us who feel unseen or unheard, this is an emotion that alleviates that feeling, though the consequences can be dire due to the way it is expressed. It can be very volatile and expressed by yelling, screaming, cussing, throwing things, hitting, slapping and punching. It can be a look. I often say there is nothing wrong with anger, it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Other words that are commonly used to describe anger include:
How to talk about your emotions
Want to be better at communicating how you feel to your family, friends and coworkers? Dr. Childs offers the following tips.
Accept how you feel
Your feelings are real and valid — so it’s best if you acknowledge them. The goal is to accept how you feel without passing judgement or pushing those feelings down. Remember, we all have good and bad days.
It’s how you deal with those “negative emotions” that can affect your mental well-being. For example, denying how you feel can cause more harm than good, resulting in unhealthy behaviors.
A recent study found that people who perceive feelings like sadness, fear and anger as bad tend to have more anxiety and depression than others who perceive those same bad emotions as appropriate and healthy.
“Emotions are not good or bad, they just are,” Dr. Childs reiterates.
“It’s what we do with our emotions that can become the problem. Holding in negative emotions may have negative effects on your mood and behavior. If we release our emotions via journaling, screaming into a pillow or talking to someone we trust, we have released that energy and made space for more positive energy and emotions to take root.”
Describe your emotions
Once you get a hang of accepting your feelings, the next step is to describe your emotions. You can simply do this by saying it out loud or even writing in a journal. This can help you talk to others about what you’re feeling — and help you get your thoughts in order.
And you don’t have to get caught up in writing long journal entries or diving into in-depth conversations about your feelings. Just even assigning a single word like “hurt” or “scared” can help reduce the intensity of your emotions.
“My suggestion is to try and put your emotions into words first. Try and understand how you really feel and how you want to convey this to others,” advises Dr. Childs. “Also remember, sometimes, there are no exact words. This allows you time to think about how you feel and edit and rewrite as much as you would like until it’s expressed to the best of your ability. This lets you smooth the rough edges and articulate yourself eloquently.”
Practice, practice, practice. Getting into the habit of expressing your emotions — even just a simple daily check-in with yourself — can be beneficial.
And as you become more comfortable talking about your feelings, you can dive into more thoughtful and meaningful conversations with your loved ones.
“It’s important to share our feelings so that others can understand us and our perspectives. It helps us communicate more effectively with one another,” says Dr. Childs. “One of the biggest problems in relationships is lack of or miscommunication. The more we practice sharing our feelings, the better our communication may be. Better communication can solve a plethora of issues and build better relationships.”
We mentioned this briefly above, but it’s worth repeating. Don’t judge yourself or others — all of your feelings are valid.
Even if you don’t agree with how someone else feels, don’t reject their emotions. And avoid using phrases like “don’t worry,” as that undermines how they feel.
Research shows that being supportive of other’s feelings can help regulate their emotions better, improve how you cope with feelings and reduce conflict.
“Remember: All feelings are valid. They’re not right or wrong. The other thing to consider is feelings aren’t facts, they’re feelings,” says Dr. Childs. “Judgment can make one feel they’re right or wrong and lead to people not sharing and thus shutting down communication. Subsequently, lack of communication breaks down relationships and inhibits growth.”
Dr. Childs also shares what to do if you disagree with someone and how they feel.
“We can simply say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way or I’m having a hard time understanding how you feel or I’m having a hard time understanding why you feel that way, can we talk more about it?’
“This validates their feelings, allows us to keep ours and fosters communication. It’s a win-win.”
There’s no doubt that the range of emotions we may feel each day is complicated. But our emotions are there to help us consider how we interact with others and the decisions we make.
Learning how to effectively identify and then communicate how we feel can help us have deeper, meaningful conversations with those around us.
“Our emotions are one of the first ways we learn to communicate to the world. They’re a way to express our inner selves. Emotions can color how we see the world, as well as influence how we make decisions,” says Dr. Childs.
“Therefore, having the freedom and safe space to express our emotions in a positive manner is important as is being receptive to another’s emotions. In situations in which we don’t understand another’s emotions, let’s sit and talk about perspective and find common ground. Diversity of thoughts, feeling and emotions can bring about creative ways of communication and problem solving.”