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What are emotions? Part 1.

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

The inspiration for my first foray into blogging is threefold. Primarily, it seemed logical to me to start my blog discussing the therapeutic bread and butter: emotions. Secondly, as a mother of a toddler, I have been fascinated (and floored) by watching the development of my son’s “big little feelings”, something which I was totally unprepared for. Finally, I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s new book ‘Atlas of The Heart’ (2021). Coupled with the above, her deep dive into the plethora of emotional experience inspired me to think about how, why, and what we feel, and the things we can do inside and outside the therapy room to aid emotional processing.

There is no one universal theory of emotion and emotions cannot be pinpointed to one area of the brain. They are, in and of themselves, messy. The simplest way that I’ve heard emotions described, was by Andrew Huberman during his podcast episode on ‘The Science of Emotions & Relationships’, (2021b). He argues that what we do know is: they “arise in the brain and body, they arise because there are specific connections between specific areas in the brain and body…and they are built in infancy, adolescence and puberty.” (Huberman, 2021b).

Starting in infancy then, Huberman (2021b) highlights that when we are born, we are mainly focused inward, with little understanding of the world around us. We also have no knowledge of our needs and so when we felt hungry, cold, etc, this was experienced as anxiety/ alertness. This anxiety would cause us to cry out or fidget, alerting our caregiver, who would make an assumption of our need(s) and respond accordingly. I.e., we felt hunger which made us feel anxious, we cried, someone came to feed us. From here, we begin to develop a relationship with the outside world, in which our internal states start to drive requests, which are responded to by our caregivers. Huberman (2021b) therefore suggests that the primary functions of emotions are to form bonds and to enable us to make predictions about the world; if I cry loudly enough, I will get milk.

He explains that emotions are made up of three interacting components: arousal (where you are on a continuum from panic to asleep), valence (how good or bad you feel), and interoception vs exteroception (how much your attention is focused internally vs externally). The first two dimensions, taken from the work of Peter Lang and colleagues (Dawson et al, 1999), and are relatively self-explanatory; we are likely to be aware when we feel panicked versus very relaxed, and similarly when we experience something as very positive/ pleasant, versus negative/ unpleasant. Often, “when our emotional state of stress or calm matches or mismatches the demands on us in our environment, we interpret this as a good or bad emotion”. (Huberman, 2021b).

Interoception versus exteroception

Interoception versus exteroception, however, requires a little more unpacking. Interoception - “looking inside” in Latin – is defined by Khalsa et al., (2018) as the “process by which the nervous system senses, interprets and integrates signals” from the internal organs, “providing a moment-by-moment mapping of the body’s internal landscape across conscious and unconscious levels”. It is a “component process of reflexes, urges, feelings, drives, adaptive responses and emotional experience”, making it essential for “homeostatic functioning, body regulation, survival…emotional experience, self-regulation, decision making, and consciousness, (Khalsa et al., 2018). Similarly, Price and Hoover (2018) argue that it “facilitates regulation, and an integrated sense of self…thus contributing to health and well-being”.

Exteroception, at the other end of the dimension, refers to our sensitivity to objects, occurrences and circumstances in our external environment.

Where we sit on the interoception/ exteroception continuum has roots in attachment. If our internal needs were regularly and reliably met by a caregiver, we were able to relinquish some of our interoception; we begin to trust that our needs will be met by another and therefore we don’t need to focus on them as much (Huberman, 2021b)

During adolescence we develop more autonomy and so begin to test out the exteroceptive events and actions that meet our needs for ourselves. By adulthood, we instinctively and unconsciously engage in both behaviours - we feel anxious about a meeting and so we call a loved one to talk about it. Often this is reflexive and unconscious, and, hopefully, our needs are met by the external person, object, or activity.

The reality is, that it is very difficult to 100% interocept, or 100% exterocept, as our day-to-day lives are too dynamic. Even when we try to purely interocept – say, when we are doing a body scan – we can be pulled out of our internal focus by an alarm going off or a police siren. Further, it wouldn’t serve us to be completely one way or the other, if you were constantly exterocepting your emotions would be solely based on external events over which you had no control, resulting in a complete emotional rollercoaster. Whereas focusing entirely on your internal world would prevent you from interacting with others in any meaningful way. We are constantly shifting between both as we move through the world. We do; however, each have a bias towards one or the other and this bias will shift depending on the time of day, according to what you are doing, and over the lifespan.

Why is it important to understand this?

I think it is useful to have a basic understanding of what makes up an emotion so that we are better able to move through the other stages of emotional processing: noticing, labelling, accepting, and expression (albeit not always in that order)!

Noticing emotion

However plain, and obvious, the first step towards emotional regulation is noticing. If we don’t notice we’ve experienced an emotion, or the internal states that are contributing to it, we have less chance of being able to respond to it productively. We react rather than respond. We might also become overwhelmed quickly if we haven’t noticed an emotion building in the background, and soon, the external environment becomes too much to manage on top of our internal state. Whereas, if we are responsive to interoceptive information and so are aware of an emotion early, it allows us time to process, interpret and strategize at the onset of a stressful event and before we have become overwhelmed (Price and Hooven, 2018). Developing our ability to interocept is integral to this process.

Labelling emotion

Next comes the ability to accurately name or label an internal state and emotion. We need to learn the language of emotion; our own internal language - what is my body telling me? And the names of all the different types of emotion so that we can understand what we are experiencing and communicate it to others. Price and Hooven (2018) argue that the ability to “identify and describe sensation is fundamental for interoceptive awareness” as it enables links to be drawn between physical and emotional states (for example between muscular tension and anger), and also to their environmental triggers (i.e., exteroception, and for example someone shouting at you).

In her research for her book, Atlas of The Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Brown (2021), found that “in order to process an emotion, you need to name it”, and that “those who are better able to articulate their emotions fared better psychosocially.” She also articulates here, far better than I can, the importance of labelling our emotions: “language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Without accurate language we can’t get the help we need or move through emotions productively…naming emotions helps us to recognise them in others and ourselves” (Brown, 2021).

What happens when we can’t/ don’t process our emotions?

They come out sideways. “When we can’t articulate our emotions, we feel hopeless and a destructive level of anger” (Brown, 2021). They can show up in a tense, jaw, headaches, stomach problems, knots in our muscles. They can explode onto someone or something in an unjustified and disproportionate reaction. They can create destructive behavioural patterns that ebb away at our relationship with ourselves and others.

Many of us fear emotions. That’s OK, its normal, fundamentally we are animals, designed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. However, when we can’t/ won’t/ don’t process our emotions, we reject what they can teach us about ourselves. When we cut ourselves off from feeling negative emotions, we also shut the door on our ability to experience positive ones. We stop listening to our body and mind and become numb.

Also, what we resist, persists. The research tells us that ignoring or rejecting our emotions, only makes them stronger. Experiencing the full spectrum of the good, the bad, and the ugly emotions is what makes us messy, imperfect humans. It’s normal. You are not broken. And you do not need to be fixed.

Does any of that resonate? The good news is that there is plenty of things we can do to help us navigate our emotions. The next post in the series will look at how counselling/ psychotherapy can help this process.


Brown, B. (2021) Atlas of The Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Vermillion: Penguin.

Dawson, M.E., Schell, A.M. and Bohmelt, A.H. (eds) (1999) Startle Modification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khalsa, S.S., Adolphs, R., Cameron, O.G., Critchley, H.D., Davenport, P.W., Feinstein, J.S., Feusner, J.D., Garfinkel, S.N., Lane, R.D., Mehling, W.E. and Meuret, A.E., 2018. Interoception and mental health: a roadmap. Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, 3(6), pp.501-513.

Price CJ, Hooven C. Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Front Psychol. 2018 May 28;9:798. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798. PMID: 29892247; PMCID: PMC5985305.

Huberman, A. (2021b) The Science of Emotions & Relationships. [Podcast]. 29 March 2021. Available at: (Accessed 1 February 2023).

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