What is an 'emotion'?

Do we ever stop to think if we really understand what we mean, or even agree what an emotion actually is?

Go to the profile of Martin Weaver
May 23, 2017
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With the sad news from the Manchester attack today there will be a focus on emotions, both today and in the coming days and weeks.

But, what are “emotions”.

We all have them. We all express them. We all criticise them:

“Stop, being so emotional.”

“You are being over emotional.”

“I’ve stopped being emotional.”

“Why do you keep hiding your emotions?”


Do we ever stop to think if we really understand what we mean, or even agree what an emotion actually is?

What is an emotion?

I ask this question of my clients, my colleagues, my friends and my family. It’s usually followed by surprise and confusion, then by deep thinking and the struggle to find the right words.

It can end in distraction, as in

“Oh for heaven’s sake everyone knows what an emotion is!”

“It’s simple, it’s……..it’s….. what you feel …..when……”

“You’re just trying to put me off……”


I like to cut through all of this with a simple equation:

Physical Sensation + Meaning = Emotion


For example:-

Knotted feeling in my gut + I am in danger = Fear

Tension and heavy lump in my stomach + I will be hurt in some way later = Anxiety

Voice telling me I am crap + I am totally useless = Depression

Seeing pictures in my mind of violence that happened to me + It’s happening now = Trauma


These are all from my clients and to be honest, at times, from me as well. They are all subjective. By this I mean that there may be patterns that are similar between us but each one is personal and is only truly felt by ourselves alone.

We respond to the events around us unconsciously and physically. For a large number of our responses we don’t need a thinking, a cognitive, response. In some cases such as jumping when we hear an unexpected, short, loud noise, we simply react.

(In some cases the stimulus may never beyond our spinal cord – but that’s the brain as well, isn’t it?)

There is no obvious thinking process and behavioural strategy that we “decide” to engage. The physical jump is caused by the activation of the limbic system deep inside our brains. You and I exist in the world because our ancestors responded to such danger signals and jumped out of danger and so survived.

Since the early evolution of the brain we have developed the large lobes of the cerebral cortex – all that crinkly stuff we think of as “the brain”. However, the limbic system is still there responding and sending out its signals. It can respond to both stimuli outside and inside our bodies.

So, we experience a sensation in response to either an external or internal (memory) sound, picture, sensation, smell et.c and this is processed by the limbic system which responds and so creates another physical sensation. Our conscious mind then attaches a meaning to this sensation and thus we have the result, an “emotion”.

What I then do in the process of therapy is to offer, suggest or provide an alternative sensation, meaning or emotional label. Actually, if I can persuade my client to create any of these themselves then change comes much more quickly. And the change lasts.


Try it for yourself:

Physical Sensation + Meaning = Emotion

Try to get as detailed a description as you can of these:-

Physical Sensation - where in your body do you feel the sensation? Is it in your stomach, chest, legs? Is it big or small, heavy or light rough or smooth? What colour is it?

Meaning - what does this tell you about yourself or the world? If this sensation had a voice of its own, what would it be saying?

Emotion - what word or label best describes these experiences?

Now: change any one of the above and notice how the others change in response.


Where does this lead you to?

Go to the profile of Martin Weaver

Martin Weaver

Martin works as a UKCP registered Constructivist Psychotherapist, Supervisor and trainer, using Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy, (NLPt). He is qualified to Master Practitioner standard in NLP and is an INLPTA certified NLP trainer. He holds a Postgraduate Certificate in the supervision of counsellors from the University of Birmingham. He provides psychotherapy, counselling, coaching and supervision to individuals and couples at his practice in West London and is involved in several psychotherapy / counselling and supervision training programmes. ​ In the early1980s Martin was a volunteer with the Terrence Higgins Trust. Taking the first call on the helpline he was instrumental in setting the foundations for the first response to the AIDS crisis. He developed support, advice and counselling services for those people who were affected and traumatised at the beginning of the crisis. ​ During an 11 year career in the NHS he piloted the Primary Health Care Team training development programme in the South West Thames region, as well as developing and implementing a Health Promotion Officer’s training programme. He has worked at senior manager level at Regional and District level and has been responsible for commissioning new services and leading on the development of drug and alcohol and sexual health services. ​ Between 2002 and 2004 Martin was the Vice Chair, then Chair, of the professional organisation that seeks to maintain standards and develop the skills of Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapists and Counsellors, the Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy and Counselling Association, (NLPtCA). He is a past member of the Training, Education & Practice Committee of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and has helped in the re-shaping of its structure. ​ Martin provided psychological support, supervision and training to the staff and counsellors at the 7th July Assistance Centre. The centre provided psychotherapy, guidance and support to people who were affected by the London bombings in 2005, later taking on 16 further terrorist incidents and disasters. Building on his established training experience Martin created and delivered a series of workshops for the counsellors and support staff. From October 2010 to March 2011 he supervised the small team providing psychosocial support to the families and witnesses throughout the Coroner’s Inquests into the London Bombings. ​ From 2001 to 2011 he provided training, consultancy and supervision to the volunteer counsellors at Brent Bereavement Services & Bereavement Services for Hounslow. Currently he delivers courses for student psychotherapists to facilitate their UKCP accreditation.

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