Get to Know Your Eight Basic Emotions
The concept of a few “basic emotions” is a long discussed explanation of the emotional states or feelings that serve as roots for the whole spectrum of human emotion. In popular therapy models, these basic emotions give rise to all the others - from mild to extreme. I sat down with Lana Seiler, Primary Therapist for the APN Trauma program to get her insight on these eight emotions, what they are, and why they matter for those of us who aren’t therapists.
Lana is extensively trained and experienced in social work and trauma therapy. She has attended numerous trainings and read extensively on treating developmental trauma in adults with or without co-occurring disorders. Lana has trained in EMDR, Clinical Hypnotherapy, Risking Connection, Post Induction Therapy, and completed a six-week online intensive trauma therapy training led by Bessel Van Der Kolk. She also utilizes Internal Family Systems methods, Neurolinguistic Programming, AEDP, NeuroAffective Relational Model in her practice.
At All Points North Lodge, Lana is a lead trauma therapist and serves as a co-facilitator for the APN Rise Immersive Workshop.
Here’s what Lana had to say:
Why focus on eight basic emotions instead of just talking about all of them?
There are loads of concepts in mental health that can feel lofty and overwhelming to any person working through personal development or one-on-one therapy. There are certainly many more emotions than just these eight, but the model we use aims to break it down a little.
Okay, so hit us with them. Tell us about the eight basic emotions.
Sure. Before I get into it, it’s worth saying that each emotion carries a gift of some sort. Even those that we might feel are “negative” exist to signal us or help us in some way. People tend to feel each emotion through similar sensations in the body as well. We experience them in our spirit or soul but also in our bodies. Okay, here we go.
Anger is an activating emotion that stirs us into action when we have experienced or observed things like injustice, harm, or broken boundaries. It’s much like a little turbo charge. When something needs to change, anger is a motivator to run towards the issue to make a change. The extreme growth of anger manifests as rage. Rage has a place when we or someone else is in actual danger - it propels us into the “fight response”. The problem happens when we experience rage at inappropriate times.
Fear signals to us that something may not be safe. Fear can heighten our senses and give us a boost of energy usually through the flight response. Other times, fear can make us feel a little foggy or disconnected, this is the freeze response. The gift of fear is it makes us cautious and careful. Healthy fear might look like the fear we feel near the edge of a cliff, walking down a dark alley alone, or being overly vulnerable with someone who might not be safe. Fear is also connected anxiety and nervousness. Healthy reasons for nervousness or mild anxiety are when we need to perform in some way or we are about to do something new and need a little extra boost to get us on our game. The extreme of fear is panic or extreme dissociation, both of which are needed when we are in dire situation.
Truly, this emotion is one that makes life worth living. It’s what we seek out most. Joy also draws others towards us. People want to be around joyful people. Joy invites people into our space and increases our likelihood of having good, healthy, fruitful relationships.
Pain is a clear signal that a change is needed. When there is physical pain, immediate change is often necessary. If your hand hurts because you’re holding it in a fire, pain yells for you to take it out. Emotional pain can be the same. We experience emotional pain for many reasons: being treated poorly, failing at something, being emotionally invalidated etc. On the other hand (think grief or loss), pain can be a signal that something meaningful once existed but does not anymore. This emotional pain often brings a bit of reverence with it. It hurts, but it lets you know that you’re living life and that your life, and the people in it, have importance. This pain can be a part of a deep healing process.
It’s worth doing a whole blog on this because shame is such a doozy. It’s the one people struggle with most. Instead of propelling us to change or leave or reach out, it propels us to hide. Shame is often underestimated and incredibly powerful. It easily isolates when misplaced. *Stay tuned for the next blog to dive into shame.
This one can get confused with shame, but it’s different. Guilt lets us know that we’ve stepped outside of a boundary, violated someone else’s boundary, or acted outside of our value system. It appears when we know we’ve done something wrong, whether or not someone else knows. Guilt is the driver of our “conscience” and exists to stop us from being overly selfish. It also creates a sort of connectedness inside of us by putting us in alignment with something bigger through knowing and discerning right and wrong.
Passion is prevalent in the early stages of romantic relationships - the overwhelming emotion of the “honeymoon period”. It creates an intense cocktail of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters and is often experienced as an emotional high. In romantic relationships, passion typically roars the first one to two years before the levels crash a little. But if you make it through the crash, that’s when things can get really lastingly meaningful. Passion also exists in our desires to do things and create things. The feeling when we are “in the zone” in a craft or skill is often linked with passion.
This is so huge. Love is truly what keeps our species going. It creates a chemical cocktail that keeps us bonded together. It’s the reason we stick around and care for each other even when things aren’t joyful or passionate anymore. Love is accompanied by oxytocin and vasopressin, which are long lasting feel good chemicals. Love bonds us to our partners, our babies, even our pets. Love makes taking care of each other easier and makes our connections deeper. Love also can transcend into the spiritual realm. People often describe a deep love for God, the ocean, mountains or their life’s work.
Why is it important to know these emotions?
Very simply, we can’t address what we aren’t aware of. These emotions exist in us. We have feelings that come up. If we can’t identify and be aware of our own emotions, they will find a way to manifest - often not in the way we want. Sometimes, un-dealt with emotions can explode out in a panic attack or raised voices.
Other times, unrecognized emotions can actually affect the way our body functions, like disrupting our digestive system or raising our blood pressure. The more we can recognize and understand, the better we can handle it and nip excess cortisol in the bud. Also, our emotions are communications from us to us. Once we can recognize them, we can use the guidance they give us to make better choices for ourselves.
How can non-therapists use this knowledge to make a change today?
As always, if someone is in crisis or danger, do something right away. 911 exists for times like those. If you’re in a lot of distress or discomfort without crisis, it often can help to do some distress tolerance work. Letting your body and mind know you’re working on it can actually be a help on its own. When you know that help is coming, the urgency or fear may decrease.
Practically, try getting mindful. Write yourself a letter. Meditate. Look in the mirror and tell yourself the truth and what you need to hear. If you’re creative, use that as an outlet. Write a song or do some art. Whatever this looks like for you, signal to your body that you aren’t in danger and you will be okay. Emotional waves come, but these can help you ride them more comfortably. As always, there are people that are waiting to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
For more on the eight basic emotions and a spotlight on shame, stay tuned for the second part of Lana’s interview, coming in a few weeks. Prioritizing mental health in good times and bad is a critical component of living a healthy and fulfilling life. Without adequate processing of emotions and an understanding of how to choose self-care practices that truly benefit you and build mental health resilience, even the best of times might feel like the worst of times. We can help.