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6 Core Emotions & How They Work In The Body, Explained By Psychology Experts

Raise your hand if you've felt all six of them, like, today.

  • Posted on 21st Jun, 2022 22:35 PM
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Emotions can be mystifying, pleasing, heartbreaking, fascinating, and completely overwhelming. Sometimes it can feel like emotions arise and take over, ruling our actions. Other times, we might feel more in control of how we respond to surfacing emotions. We spoke to two mental health experts in order to gain more clarity on the emotional process within the body and mind and to delve into six basic kinds of emotions.

What are emotions?

An emotion is a conscious change in one's behavioral and psychological state of being in response to some type of stimulus, according to psychologist and licensed counselor Elizabeth Fedrick, Ph.D., LPC. This stimulus can be either external (such as an event or interaction) or internal (such as a thought or physical sensation). "Regardless of whether the stimulus is external or internal, these experiences result in a shift to one's psychological and physiological state of well-being," Fedrick tells mbg.

Emotions are subjectively experienced, and while they have similarities for most people regarding the psychological, physiological, and behavioral reactions that result from a specific emotion, they are also incredibly unique in how they are fully experienced and expressed by each individual. 

Fedrick says that it is a common misconception that emotions are the same as feelings or mood states. "Emotions are specifically defined by the combination of these three elements: a unique internal experience, which often leads to a physiological response, and then ultimately a behavioral reaction," she explains. 

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How emotions work in our body.

Emotions can affect our bodies in a number of ways. "Both positive and negative emotions can cause the body to react in different ways, like restlessness, jitteriness, headaches, muscle tension, and stomachaches," GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor at PsychPoint, tells mbg, "and strong emotions can cause a stress response." Emotions can also cause us to react by crying or needing to release energy in order to reduce stress, she adds. 

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To understand how emotions work in the body, Fedrick says that it is necessary to understand how they are filtered through the brain. 

"The limbic system has been identified as the primary part of the brain that processes our emotional experiences. The brain has a specific emotional filter, also known as the amygdala, which stimuli are processed through," she explains. 

The amygdala is designed to store sensory memory from our previous experiences and uses this information as the gauge to determine how to feel about present-day experiences. The amygdala then sends out corresponding information to other parts of the brain, which results in the release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones based on the interpretation of that event. 

"For example, if the amygdala processes an event as exciting or enjoyable, there will be a release of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, etc., that will influence how the body reacts to this event," Fedrick explains. "If the amygdala senses something as scary, shameful, irritating, worrisome, etc., there will be a release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol, which are all responsible for our fight-or-flight response that is designed to keep us safe."

Thus, emotions are experienced in the body as the result of how the brain processes an event and what neurotransmitters and hormones are released into the body in response to this interpretation. 

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The basic types of emotions.

In the 20th century, psychologist Paul Ekman, Ph.D., identified six basic types of emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. His research recognized emotions as evolutionary functions meant to help us deal with life's events without having to actively think about them. He also closely studied how emotions can be conveyed via micro-expressions, i.e., facial expressions that happen in a fraction of a second, sometimes unconsciously. 

By studying universal facial expressions, Ekman found that each of these core emotions is actually a family of related emotional states, which are variations on a shared theme:

1. Happiness

Happiness is the result of "feel-good" neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin leads to feelings of contentment and enjoyment in the body. Dopamine is all about reward-seeking and therefore can lead to feelings of excitement and heightened states of pleasure. 

"Endorphins and oxytocin are also some of our feel-good hormones that also result in feelings of calmness, contentment, pleasure, and joy in the body," Fedrick adds. 

Variations include: 

  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Pride
  • Contentment
  • Gratitude 
  • Amusement
  • Playfulness 
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2. Sadness

Sadness can be the result of low levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. "This can cause our bodies to react through a depressed mood or cause irritability," says Guarino. "It can also cause the body to feel heavier and low in energy."

Prolonged lower levels of these neurotransmitters are associated with depression, fatigue, general lack of energy, difficulties concentrating, shifts in appetite, and sleep. 

Variations include: 

  • Gloomy
  • Hopeless
  • Disappointed
  • Unhappy
  • Lonely 
  • Bored
  • Apathetic

3. Fear

Fear takes place when the brain perceives a potential threat. "Fear creates a reaction in the nervous system, which alerts the body of danger and can cause it to go into fight-or-flight mode," Guarino explains. "Some people may also freeze up."

According to Fedrick, other impacts on the body can be respiratory and heart rate increase, muscle tension, dry mouth, excessive energy in the body, and more. 

Variations include:

  • Scared
  • Worried
  • Apprehensive
  • Anxious
  • Panic 
  • Insecure
  • Discouraged
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4. Anger

Anger has a similar neurological response to fear, as many of the same hormones and neurotransmitters are released. "Anger can cause muscle tension and a short temper," says Guarino. "You may react by shouting, stewing in negative thoughts, or lashing out at people or objects to relieve stress."

"The close correlation between fear and anger is why parents might yell when a child is about to do something dangerous or why a partner might become aggressive when feeling triggered by their partner," explains Fedrick. 

Variations include: 

  • Frustrated
  • Irritated
  • Mad
  • Annoyed
  • Skeptical
  • Jealous

5. Disgust

Disgust can cause aversive reactions in the body. You may experience an upset stomach or you may find yourself wanting to leave the situation.

"Disgust is designed for protection of the body by repelling us away from things that might be toxic or contaminated," says Fedrick. "[Examples of] disgust can be around something that smells or tastes bad or can also be in response to moral violations."

Variations: 

  • Repulsed
  • Aversion
  • Distaste
  • Repelled
  • Sickened 
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6. Surprise

Surprise is interesting because it can cause either positive or negative reactions in the body, depending on what caused the surprise. 

"Initial reactions may be freeze or shock reactions," says Guarino. "If the surprise is positive, it can lead to happiness, but if it is a bad reaction, it can create a trauma response, which can cause long-term negative reactions like anxiety, depression, fear, and muscle tension."

Variations include: 

  • Shocked
  • Astonished
  • Amazed
  • Stunned
  • Wonderment

Other theories on emotion.

There are a plethora of theories and ideas about the emotional process, and some of these are rather conflicting regarding the process of how an emotion is experienced, says Fedrick. Some theories are cognitive, some physiological, some both, and some neither. 

Examples include social theories that explain emotions as the products of cultures and societies, or Robert Plutnick's wheel of emotions, which cites eight basic emotions, instead of six. 

6 Core Emotions & How They Work In The Body, Explained By Psychology Experts

Robert Plutchik's wheel of emotions.

Image by Illustration by Grace Lee / mbg Creative

Regardless of these variations, much emotional research entwines and overlaps. Across the board, Fedrick notes that researchers study emotions by closely examining facial expressions (including micro-expressions), observing pupil dilation, brain activity, heart rate, and even skin conductance. 

The takeaway. 

Though we can begin to get a surface understanding of the basic emotions, emotions are vastly complex, constantly being studied and learned more about. 

"The imperative part to understand is that emotions are a subjective experience that are the result of how they are interpreted," says Fedrick. "While you might not have influence over the split-second interpretation, you do have influence over how you proceed to think about this event."

Cognitive processing of emotions can be done in therapy, through practices like journaling, movement, meditation, and beyond. All of these methods can also be effective ways of boosting your emotional intelligence.

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