Emotions 101: So, What Are Emotions?

We get a lot of mixed messages about emotions. We’re told we are “too emotional,” or that we “need to be more logical,” while also maybe receiving some more subtle messages about how “our emotions are valid.” So, what do we make of all this? Let’s jump into this three-part series on the building blocks of emotional understanding.

While there are different ways of categorizing emotions, one way is to look at six core emotions that all humans feel: anger, joy, fear, disgust, surprise, and sadness (Fosha, 2000). Emotions are triggered when something changes in our environment, and when we pay attention, they tell us what we need to do. That’s because core emotions are related to particular actions (Greenberg, 2017). For example, fear leads us to either run away from danger or fight back, sadness leads us to seek comfort, and surprise moves us towards curious exploration.

When our subconscious brain (the limbic system, if we’re being technical) registers something different in our environment, emotions automatically arise (Greenberg, 2017). Emotions are primarily experienced in our bodies as different sensations, and we reflect on these sensations in our thoughts. You may feel your heart rate and breathing increase with anger or fear, a lump in your throat with sadness, or notice a smile on your face with joy. 

Each core emotion has different intensities and distinctions. Using an emotion wheel can help to grow your vocabulary and assist in building more nuanced awareness of emotions as they come up. However, you may be wondering about some big emotions not listed here, such as anxiety, shame, and guilt. You may also notice it’s hard to know what you’re feeling in your body when different emotions come up. We’ll be covering those topics in the next posts. For now, exploring the variety of core emotions is a good place to start.


Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: A model for accelerated change. Basic Books.

Greenberg, L. S. (2017). Emotion-focused therapy: Revised edition. American Psychological Association.

Thank you to Danny for writing this blog post! If you are curious about exploring your emotions, consider booking a session with Danny (or any of our other counsellors).

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