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Psych Professor Breaks Down Emotions

Understanding the spectrum of human emotion


by Dr Nicolle Mayo - April 1, 2019

If you’ve seen the motion picture, Inside Out, you may have noticed how this movie depicts emotions as fickle, ever changing parts of us that are affected by our current, past, and even future circumstances. Not only that, but our emotions play off of each other in both positive and negative ways. Inside Out not only provides a great example of how important emotions are in our lives by telling us what is going on inside us at any given moment, but it depicts some of the more core and vulnerable emotions, joy, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger.

These emotions, along with shame, guilt, surprise and hurt, are considered our primary emotions. These universal emotions, as studied by David Matsumoto, are our initial response to a given situation, conveying an inner need that we want met. They can prepare our body to fight, flight, or freeze and are crucial to pay attention to. They can be adaptive or maladaptive; sometimes if we have experienced a past significant situation without resolution, it’s these core primary emotions that can uncontrollably transfer into our everyday life. If we stay in touch with these emotions, by recognizing, naming, and acknowledging them when we notice them, we feel more control over them and our actions. We aren’t always good at this process. If we were to practice this, it would look like us asking ourselves what we are feeling periodically during the day, and sitting with that emotion, whether good or bad. Taking that emotion and examining what triggered it and why helps us get to know ourselves better.

Our primary emotions often occur subconsciously. Meaning, we don’t always recognize them right when we feel them. The emotions that we do notice are often times secondary emotions. Secondary emotions occur after we feel the primary emotion. These are conscious and represent our reactions to our initial primary emotion; there are many more of these than there are primary emotions. Every other emotion that we did not name as a primary emotion is a secondary emotion (e.g. excitement, frustration, depression, disappointment, confusion, defensive, resentment, etc.) There are thousands of these. Secondary emotions tend to be less vulnerable, and more socially acceptable to express. Conveying these can be a distraction to the real core emotions that are impacting us. Identifying and labeling secondary emotions, however, can aide in exploring the underlying primary emotions. This only works if we intentionally take inventory of what is going on in our body. By tuning into our physiological, or our body’s natural internal, response we become more self-aware. We usually feel relief when we have identified and expressed our primary emotions, especially when we can relay them to close people in our lives. Though it can take A LOT of courage to do so. But, if we do, we feel empowered as people, and are more likely to take responsibility for our own attitudes and actions.

Connecting to our emotions can be a difficult task, but emotions accompany our thoughts. We are better at tuning into our thoughts, especially if they are negative because they bother use, thereby signaling to us that something is wrong. When we listen to our thoughts and trace these back to an emotion, first secondary, then primary (or just straight to primary), we are learning to track our emotions. This process helps us view emotions with a lens of curiosity, helping us further discover what is going on in ourselves. Doing this exercise provides so much insight into our own struggles, hopefully motivating us to talk through them with a trusted other person to try to resolve the core issue. This does wonders for relationships. It just takes the initial step of recognition before we can move forward, learn to cope with, talk about, and experience an inner healing that brings life back into us!


Idea/Concept: Dr Nicolle Mayo

Videography: Andrew Moore

Video Editing: Andrew Moore

Writing: Dr Nicolle Mayo

Anchor: Dr Nicolle Mayo


Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by UPMC Susquehanna, Dunham’s Dept Store

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