The Psychology Of Emotion

Updated April 11, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

For many, many years, psychologists and other mental health practitioners have studied human emotions. Often, people don't understand the difference between emotions and feelings. They are related to each other but are not quite the same thing. Emotions are sensations in the body triggered by stimuli, while feelings are our thoughts in response to those emotions. Both emotions and feelings can influence our thought and behaviors. 

Emotions impact our personalities, temperament, and moods. Today, psychologists have formed theories which help explain how emotions are generated and the effect they have on humans. Keep reading to learn more about the psychology of emotions and what it can mean for you.

Three categories of emotion

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Psychologists have sorted emotion theory into three categories, including physiological, cognitive, and neurological. The physiological theory states that bodily responses create emotion. The cognitive theory suggests that thoughts and mental activity create emotions. Finally, the neurological theory proposes emotions are created through neuron responses in the brain.

Most scientists believe that these three theories work together to create and affect emotions.

Six theories of emotion

There are currently six theories of emotion psychology that explain where emotions come from and how they affect us. You can see how they fall into and combine the categories of emotion theory stated above.

Evolutionary theory of emotion

Charles Darwin is most noted for his work with evolution and natural selection. However, Darwin also developed a theory of emotion that proposed that emotions evolve because they are adaptive traits that allow us to reproduce. When we feel love and affection, these emotions lead to arousal and ultimately mate selection and reproduction. Emotions such as fear and anxiety can keep us safe from danger and predators, activating our fight-or-flight responses. Emotions enable humans to respond quickly to environmental factors, improving the chances of survival and successful reproduction.

James-Lange theory of emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion was proposed by psychologist William James and physiologist Carl Lange. This theory is one of the most popularly accepted theories of physiological emotion theory. The James-Lange theory suggests that external stimulus leads to a physiological response depending on how you interpret what you are seeing or experiencing. If you walk through the forest and come across a mountain lion, your instinct is to start trembling and become anxious; this physiological response causes fear and initiates the flight or fight response. Your body must first react, according to James-Lange theory, before your brain can create the emotion.

Cannon-Bard theory of emotion

The Cannon-Bard theory is another physiological theory that proposes several contradictions to the James-Lange theory. First, Cannon-Bard’s theory suggests that people can experience a physiological response to a stimulus without feeling an emotion. For example, during fearful events, your heart may be racing. When you exercise, your heart also races, but you are not feeling the emotion of fear. If the heart racing caused the emotion, you would feel the emotion every time you experienced the physiological response. Cannon also notes that sometimes people feel fear before they have an external stimulus, such as walking alone at night. Bard later expanded on this theory to propose that we can feel emotions and physiological responses simultaneously. One does not always have to come before the other.

Schachter-Singer theory of emotion

The Schachter-Singer theory is also called the two-fact theory of emotion. This theory is categorized under the cognitive theories of emotion and suggests that first, physiological arousal must occur. Then, one must identify the reason for the experience and label the emotion. This theory combines aspects of both the Cannon-Bard theory and James-Lange theory. Schachter-Singer’s theory suggests that the physiological response infers emotions and that the brain must use cognitive abilities to interpret those responses. This theory also concluded that the interpretation of physiological response could vary from person to person. Thus, no two people may react the same way to an identical stimulus.

Cognitive appraisal theory

Thinking must occur before emotion in this appraisal theory made popular by Richard Lazarus. According to Lazarus, there is a very distinct process that must occur to experience emotion. First, the stimulus must be presented. This stimulus leads to thought, which then stimulates a physiological response, and finally, emotion is experienced. Going back to the dangerous animal idea, in this theory, one must first think they are in danger before a physiological response or emotion occurs.

Facial-feedback theory of emotion

Facial Feedback Theory suggests that the way we experience emotions is linked to our facial expressions. This theory uses Darwin's and James’s ideas, as they noted that physiological response sometimes impacts emotion. According to the Facial Feedback Theory, if you smile even when you are not happy, you will begin to feel happier than you would if you were frowning.

How to use emotional psychology to handle your emotions

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Understanding the six different emotion theories can help you better understand where your emotions come from and why you react a certain way to a stimulus. However, many of us struggle to keep our emotions under control. Some of us have difficulty remaining calm when we are angry or may fail to cry when we are sad, among other conditions. As a society, we have intense pressure, males especially, to keep our emotions in check. At the same time, it is unhealthy to bottle your emotions; it can be even worse not to have control over your own emotions or feelings.

These are a few ways that you can use what you have learned about emotional psychology to control your emotions:

  1. Recognize your emotions and your feelings—To control your feelings, you must be able to recognize them, along with your emotions. We are programmed by society to keep our emotions and feelings stuffed down and mutter an “I’m doing just fine” when asked how we are doing by strangers. These behaviors can hinder your ability to be in control of your emotions and/or feelings.
  2. Reflect—Looking back on a situation and analyzing why you reacted the way you did or what triggered an emotional response may help you better control your emotions during  a similar situation in the future. Understanding that sometimes the things that set us off may not be the root of the problem may help to determine the core issues.
  3. Think about consequences—Reacting in the moment is natural. Still, you must practice being able to look ahead and think about how your reactions and emotions are affecting or could affect ourselves or other people. Often, if we recognize that our emotions and reactions will be harmful to ourselves or others, we can take a step back and re-evaluate the situation.
  4. Listen to learn—When you find yourself in a situation with another person where your emotions may be getting the best of you, such as during an argument, make sure that you listen to everything the other person is saying. We often get so wrapped up in our situation and how we want to respond that we may respond before we have all the information. Don’t just listen to formulate a response; listen to learn about and connect with the other person.
  5. Press the pause button—When you realize you are not keeping a good handle on your emotions, don’t be afraid to step back and pause the conversation. Take a break from the situation and go somewhere where you can recollect your thoughts and emotions. Try using mindfulness techniques such as breathing and meditation to calm down and reassess.
  6. Unplug—There has been much research and controversy over the way electronics interfere with our emotions. Taking time away from social media, cell phones, and the internet, and instead spending time with people who care about you or going for a hike can help you better control your emotions and clear your mind.
  7. Self-Care—Learning to love yourself and take care of yourself should be number 1 on this list. Before you can interpret others’ emotions and build lasting and successful relationships, you must first be in a good mental state yourself. Taking time out for yourself and enjoying the little things that make you happy can elevate your mood, make you happier, ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and help you feel calmer and more relaxed in general.
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Explore emotion in depth with a therapist's guidance

Emotions impact every part of our lives. Our emotions impact our relationships, and society is built upon relationships. This is why it is important to understand how emotions work—in particular our own. When you can teach yourself how to control your own emotions, recognize emotions, and interpret those emotions correctly, you have a better chance at successful and productive relationships and, perhaps, a happier life.

This understanding can benefit all our relationships, be they at work, at home, at school, or in other places. Our emotions greatly impact our mental health status, and feelings should be taken seriously. 

If you're having difficulty coping with your emotions, you may want to consider online therapy. Online therapy can be a great way to seek help without leaving your house. You can connect with a therapist in a variety of ways, all at a time convenient to you.

BetterHelp is an online therapy platform offering connections to licensed therapists. All you need to do is fill out a questionnaire, and you will be matched with a suitable therapist. BetterHelp therapists are trained to help you work through your most complex emotions and feelings and feel more in control of them.

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