The Anatomy of an Emotion

Emotions are tricky things. They come in a variety of sharpnesses and intensities, but there are no instructions on what to do with them or how to make sense of them. Emotions such as fear, anger, shame, or guilt can be like un-invited dinner guests that won’t leave even after you started turning out the lights! Emotions such as love, joy, and peace can be like an unexpected bouquet of flowers, showing up on a day when you thought all was lost.

Emotions are messengers. They have something to say to our body, soul, and spirit about how we're doing as a person. Before you can really hear the voice of the emotion and discern its message, it helps to understand the origin of the emotion.

How emotions are formed

Emotions trace back to an event which triggered a thought. Most people can identify what was happening when they felt angry, happy, scared, etc. This is referred to as the “incident” or “trigger.” Immediately following the incident, a thought appears about what is happening. We analyze the event to see if it's good or bad for us. If we had a cartoon thought bubble over our heads we would be able to see exactly what thoughts appeared at the time of the incident or just afterwards. As our thoughts develop, our brain becomes activated. If we had electrodes hooked up to the brain, we might actually see the brain light up in different ways, depending on what event just happened and what thought popped up.

Next our body may respond with a quickened heart rate, rising or dropping body temperature, increased blood pressure, etc. Our face may give us away through manifestations such as crying, tightened brows, or wide eyes. We may have an urge to do something such as yell or throw something, and we may, at times, actually act on that urge. All of these things give way to the emotion we are “feeling”. The feeling is actually the last thing that happens in this process.

Explore an example

Let’s take a deeper look into the situation by taking a look at an example.

Incident: You said you were going to take me out to dinner. When I came home, I found a note that said you had gone fishing and you never mentioned the dinner.
Emotion: Hurt feelings

Most people stop here, making interpretations of what happened and reacting to how they feel. It’s really not that simple. There’s actually A LOT more to the hurt.

Dig deeper

Taking a closer look can help us understand what is happening underneath an interaction. Let’s fill this in a little more.

Incident: You said you were going to take me out to dinner. When I came home, I found a note that said you had gone fishing and you never mentioned the dinner.

  • Thought: I’m not important to you. I can’t rely on you. I don’t measure up. I’m forgettable.
  • Brain/Body response: Face is flushed, body temperature increased, stomach dropped.
  • Face: Flat face, tears well up in my eyes. I look down.
  • Urge: Yell, scream, and throw something.
  • Action: Grab a pint of ice cream and watch TV.
  • Emotion: Hurt, Sad, Angry

Once I take the time to pull apart the feeling and all that comes with it, I can see what thoughts were triggered by the event. I also discover there is more than just the feeling of hurt.

Discover the thought triggers

We cannot control our feelings. Many times emotions come without warning and when we least expect it. We can get better at listening to what our feelings are telling us. The Bible gives us clear and specific instruction to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When we do this, we may discover a very different and unique relationship with our emotions.

Thought: “I’m not important to you.”
Response: “I believe I am important to him, and I know I am important to God (Jeremiah 31:3). I don’t know why he forgot about dinner. I can ask him when I see him.”

Thought: “I can’t rely on you.”

Response: “I was planning on our dinner together and I was let down. I want to rely on my partner. I am going to have to bring this up to him if I want to have a good relationship with him.”

Thought: “I don’t measure up.”

Response: “I am enough because God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-16). His forgetting of dinner is a reflection of his choice, not my worth.”

Thought: “I’m forgettable.”

Response: “That’s not true. Just because someone forgot about a plan we made does not mean that I am forgettable as a person. I am on the mind of God and that’s pretty incredible! (Jeremiah 29:11).”

Ask the important questions

Next time you are having a particularly strong emotion, ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the name of the feeling I am experiencing? Anger, sad, fear, joy, shame, guilt?
  • What happened prior to this emotion?
  • What went through my mind after the incident occurred? What did I tell myself? What did I believe was true based on the event?
  • Do I need to do something in response to this feeling?
  • Father God, what truth do you want me to know?

What we think matters and will powerfully impact what we say, do and how we feel. You and I may have a completely different response to the exact same event, because we have a different narrative in our thought bubble. Do you ever wonder why other people don’t feel the way you feel? Their emotion may have a different anatomy compared to yours, and yours is worth investigating!

About the author — Kathy Krentkowski, MA, LCPC, LMHC

Kathy Krentkowski is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Illinois and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in the state of Indiana and works at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. She has a rich clinical background in residential, church, and outpatient settings, working with adolescents and adults. She is experienced in working with various issues including abuse, addiction, depression, anxiety, relationships, and self-esteem.

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