Emotional reactions

Understanding how your brain predicts your feelings
You might think that emotions arise as a direct result of what’s happening. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The brain takes in what’s happening and contextualizes it. So, when our partner gives us flowers, brain neurons fire. And we think that is what makes us smile and feel happy. In fact, it’s much more complex.We usually don’t have the mental energy to constantly re-examine and re-evaluate how we feel so instead our brains do a quick survey to generate a guess for how we “probably feel” based on our experience of getting flowers in the past combined with the sensations we notice, like perhaps a surprised smile and a flushed face.

Neuropsychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has researched and written extensively on the way emotions work. She explains that our brains guess the emotions that will be needed, but not always in reaction to external events. Our brains are actually doing complex work to generate our emotion based on the situation, our personal history, and how the body feels. This means there are things we can do in all three areas to make change if we want to. (More on that in a minute.)

And there are a lot of human emotions. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out highlighted five primary emotions – anger, fear, disgust, joy, and sadness. But in real life, our emotions are layered with nuances that allow for a much broader emotional range.

Humans are capable of feeling amusement, awe, confusion, empathic pain, horror, surprise, and relief, to name just a few. And, single emotions can be combined in infinite ratios. You might remember feeling both sad about and fond of something. Or feeling both surprise and joy when you received a gift you really wanted. Maybe even a little relief, too.

So how do we understand and modify our emotional reactions? Let’s go back to the three ingredients: Body, the past and surroundings.

First, the body.

Our physical health plays a huge part in our emotions. Body signals, like a faster heart rate, help our brains form predictions. “To change the signals coming from your body, try to get more sleep, eat healthfully, and exercise. A stronger, healthier body promotes a healthier emotional life,” Barrett wrote in a blog post. Being “hangry” – feeling angry because of hunger – is an example of how something physical can influence our emotions.

Second, the past.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think and feel about it. New perspectives on past experiences can be reached by talking with friends, family, or a therapist. Even practicing mindfulness, staying more focused on what’s happening in the here and now.

While you’re at it, Barrett suggests trying some new activities. Activities designed to boost your emotional well-being like meditation, gratitude journaling, or even gardening can help us see the world in different ways. New experiences provide more data points for your brain to use next time it is predicting what you should feel.

And finally, your environment.

As for s