An Inside Look at Emotions

An Inside Look at Emotions

By Ann Freestone, BA’89

Whether you need to “get a grip” or be more expressive, our feelings and emotions can send us over the moon, strike a raw nerve, leave us weak in the knees or bring us to tears.

Emotions are fundamental to the human condition — but also complex and somewhat mysterious. What do emotions tell us about ourselves, as individuals and cultures? How do they give meaning to our experiences? How much should we pay attention to them, or look to “control” them?

Perhaps, the Disney Pixar hit animated movie Inside Out — where emotions serve as the main characters — can provide some initial perspective.

In the movie, Joy desperately tries to run the brain of an 11-year-old named Riley. But when the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotion characters (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) fight, and Riley’s inner-world gets shaken up as she navigates her new home, school and city.

So it is with our emotions.

“When anger is driving the brain, it colors how Riley sees the world, so part of Inside Out captured how different emotions color our experiences and how they embody different conceptions of what’s good or bad,” explains Anne Ozar, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, whose scholarly research includes the philosophy of emotions.

“Emotions do, I believe, have a very significant role in giving and disclosing the meaning of daily experiences as they tend to ‘run ahead’ of our attention, coloring our experience in important ways, making some things more salient than others.”

They’re Universal

The six basic emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. These basic emotions cross cultures and have been part of the human experience from day one. Complex emotions, which involve cognitive elements and cultural influences, include shame, guilt, love, compassion, sympathy and empathy, among others.

Praveen Fernandes, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Creighton, describes emotion as a stirred-up state in response to a situation or trigger. He says emotions are a product of our own mind or external stimuli, as well as a combination of feelings, thoughts and experiences, topped off with physical components, such as increased heart rate and muscle tension, making them very complex.

Emotions, he says, tell us a lot about ourselves.

“The way we react to the internal or external stimuli depends on the nature of the stimuli, what we’ve learned growing up, what experience we’ve had with similar stimuli (whether we learn they’re a good thing or bad), our life experience — the idea of how we are shaped to respond to various stimuli,” Fernandes says.

“Humans are creatures of habit,” he continues. “And the guides are our past experiences. Most experiences are usually a replica of a similar emotion with a similar situation.”

For example, if a soldier in Iraq experiences a bomb exploding in a trash can, when he returns to the U.S. and drives past a trash can, his heart beats fast, he gets a sinking feeling — because of his past experience — and that triggers emotions in a very negative way even if it’s very unlikely a bomb is in the trash can.

“Past experience with that stimulus will dictate your future response if there were strong emotions associated with that stimulus in the past,” explains Fernandes.

So were human emotions passed down genetically in natural selection? “The short answer is yes,” Fernandes says. “Darwin’s work in the 1800s teased out similarities in animals and humans. Basic emotions, such as happiness and anger, are transmitted, but the degree to which they are expressed is shaped over a lifetime.”

Deniz Yilmazer-Hanke, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical sciences, adds that because of the similarities and organization of human and animal brains, we can assume animals also experience emotions.

“Animals have similar facial expressions and behaviors,” Yilmazer-Hanke says. “Imagine a monkey that lost a child. She might sit in the corner and not communicate. We know how we would feel in that situation.”

Yilmazer-Hanke studies genes that specifically influence fear behavior. To measure the effects of genes on this emotion, her research takes place in a “very artificial” setting where she controls the gender, time, age and all the factors in the environment.

“There are certainly genetic influences, but the environment, learning, feelings and experiences play a major role,” Yilmazer-Hanke says.

Expressing Our Emotions

While all human beings experience emotions, the big difference is in how we express — or repress — them.

Britta McEwen, Ph.D., associate professor of history, studies the history of emotions. “They do cross cultural lines, but each culture in time and space has particular ‘emotional regimes’ — ways it asks citizens or subjects to feel about certain issues, problems, life-cycle events and relationships,” she says. “So some cultures value and express emotions that others repress or deny.”

Think about anger. In American culture, it’s more accepted that men express anger, but more surprising when women do.

“Donald Trump expresses anger and outrage, but we wouldn’t see Carly (Fiorina) having the same tone as effective because it would undermine her credibility to take on that demeanor,” says Sherianne Shuler, Ph.D., associate professor of communication studies, who examines emotions in the workplace. “We give men a pass with anger.” (See “Working With Our Emotions.”)

Consider other cultures. In certain Asian cultures, shame and guilt are to be avoided at all costs. High-ranking officials who have done something shameful will go to extremes and even commit suicide. And throughout history, we see how people express or repress emotions.

According to McEwen, medieval knights were not allowed to express their fear, but could write about their unrequited love for a married woman. The Vikings did not express emotions, even when talking about the reason to heinously murder someone, saying something as terse as “She was hot-headed.” (See “An Emotional Affair in 1920s Vienna.”)

From the earliest of ages, children learn what emotions to express. Shuler points to the time when a baby is learning to walk and what happens when he or she falls down: “They look at the parents — ‘Am I crying? Am I okay?’ — to see how they should react. If the adult says, ‘Oh, honey! Are you okay?’ then the child cries.”

Ozar adds that having certain emotional responses to some things may be instinctual and not learned, but this is not the case with complex emotions such as guilt or shame.

Most complicated emotions, she says, are “tied up with our understanding of emotion concepts and our learning of language.” An example of the complexity of emotions is responding to the good fortune of a friend with the emotion of envy. “At the same time, you recognize that such a response is not characteristic of being a good friend, and so you respond to what you recognize as your own envy with another distinct emotion, shame,” explains Ozar.

The Biology of Emotions

Past research describes the brain as having two compartments — the emotional side and the cognitive rational side — that are separate and acting in opposition to each other with one winning.

“Now research says that’s not entirely true,” Fernandes says. “The cognitive thinking part and emotional brain are very intricately connected and they influence each other. The mind tries to make sense of what happened and tune down or tune up the emotions. Rational thinking kicks in quickly.”

Going from an outer stimulus to inner feelings is a mix of instinct and cognition. “People are realizing it’s complex,” Fernandes says. “It’s a networking between the cognitive and emotional parts of the brain, which are always communicating with each other and trying to make sense of the stimulus and what to do about it.”

According to Yilmazer-Hanke, it is mainly subcortical brain regions that are responsible for the instinctual or, in other words, implicit learning of emotions.

Here’s what happens in the brain: Novel information or fearful stimuli activate the amygdala, which communicates with the limbic cortex and prefrontal areas. Together with the limbic cortex and prefrontal areas, the amygdala then controls the expression of emotions by activating “hard-wired” brain circuits in the hypothalamus and brainstem. Such emotional expressions like flight or fight help us escape dangerous situations and to adapt to the environment.

Another part of the brain that’s involved is the hippocampus. “Contextual information processed by the hippocampus is a critical component of the emotional learning process as well as emotional memory,” Yilmazer-Hanke says. “Emotional memories are embedded in the environmental context in which they were obtained, helping us remember our feelings and other things when we arrive in the same environment.”

She says to imagine having felt very happy and safe when visiting a certain garden in the summer as a child. You are more likely to remember this feeling when you revisit this garden in the summer when the same flowers bloom and you smell those flowers. You may even remember a song you had heard that day, although you were not aware of this song for the last 20 years. That’s the hippocampus at work.

Coloring Our World

Emotions affect our day-to-day experiences. “They tell us we are alive,” McEwen says. “Emotions give meaning to our world by tethering us to something bigger than just our intellect’s ability to perceive things. We value them as highly personal, but also devalue them as subjective.”

Ozar says they disclose the world as having meaning as good or bad, and often more specifically as, for example, beautiful or dangerous. Take a sunset. “The meaning of the emotion joy is that this is wonderful — highlighting a feature of the world,” she says. “That’s part of what they do in our lives: They’re one of the avenues through which the world has meaning for us.”

In fact, they can shape our world in terms of race, class and gender, according to McEwen. “Emotions can be used by our society to pigeonhole you, such as the differences between men and women and what they can express,” McEwen says. “Women have freedom emotionally, but the price is women can be counted out because of those emotions. If a female cries, it’s indicative of weakness.”

Controlling Emotions

What are some tips to better manage our emotions? “It’s the million-dollar question,” Fernandes says. “Recognize the stimulus — the triggers that set us off, especially anger, sadness or fear. Step back, stop what you are doing, and buy yourself time to know what’s really going on.”

According to Yilmazer-Hanke, emotional responses that are induced in the body, such as increased heart rate or breathing, are signaled back to the brain, positively reinforcing ongoing emotions.

“Regaining control of these bodily responses through slow deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) disrupts this feedback loop and helps us calm down,” she says.

Fernandes says slow deep breathing and PMR go a long way to tone down the emotional response.

Here’s how to use these techniques. Go to a quiet place, dim the lights, sit in a relaxed position and breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. This breathing exercise decreases the adrenaline in the body. To do PMR, tense and then relax each muscle group from the face to the toes for a few seconds. “If you relax yourself, you can’t be tense, so it tones down your emotional state,” Fernandes says.

He says psychotherapy can help individuals see things in a different light so that when an emotion occurs, the person can reappraise and analyze what is going on and whether to get away or approach the situation.

Yilmazer-Hanke adds that in severe situations, such as panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), blocking adrenaline-related mechanisms with medicine in the body (through disruption of positive feedback) and/or in the brain (through blockade of learning/reinforcement of adverse events) can assist psychotherapy and other measures aimed at tuning down emotions.

Inside Out Gets It Right

In the movie Inside Out, the emotion characters all want to be heard and the movie reveals that all the emotions have something to contribute, not just Joy. We find out Sadness is actually good because she allows Riley to grieve and move on. So no matter where you are in the narrative of life, emotions play key roles, some even leading ones.

An Emotional Affair in 1920s Vienna

Britta McEwen, Ph.D., recently wrote “Emotional Expression and the Construction of Heterosexuality: Hugo Bettauer’s Viennese Advice Columns” for a prestigious journal, The Journal of the History of Sexuality. The article features emotions and the construction of heterosexuality in 1920s Vienna. McEwen used an advice column to get at how people describe the emotions they feel about the opposite sex — love, fidelity, confusion, etc.

Hugo Bettauer’s advice column caught McEwen’s attention because it appears in a very lighthearted magazine full of fashion, sports events, etc. — articles that were meant to be enjoyed.

“The letters were so painful, sometimes funny, but most were heartfelt and upset at their prospects of love, so it stuck out,” she explains. “For any culture, we have to remember everyone has to learn the appropriate expression, even for love. The appropriateness is changing constantly.”

According to McEwen, love is not natural and internally understood by all. “It is mediated by our culture. In 1920s Vienna, their expression is special to time and culture,” McEwen says. “It’s okay to express confusion in the way that they did, and it suggests their culture is in crisis politically and economically and morally changing. No wonder they were confused about the proper form of love.”

The column created an alternative emotional community in which readers could speak their minds, without fear of judgment, but within the content of certain accepted norms about sexuality — what McEwen calls “emotional regime.”

“You’re asked to accept that people are going to cheat, that men have more power than women, that women’s roles are changing and you have to accept that or you’ll be left behind,” McEwen says. “Companionate marriage is the goal, which was completely new, as opposed to arranged marriages.”

McEwen says what makes her research unique is these simple letters offer a concrete entry point into the complex mentalities, discourses and cultural practices of the period, which historians have previously investigated primarily through high culture, such as drama, music, theater and art.

Working with Our Emotions

Sherianne Shuler’s main area of research focuses on the role of emotions in the workplace and how we manage them.

“Anyone who works with the public is doing emotional labor and managing their own emotions as well as others’ emotions,” Shuler says. “If you are a nurse helping a patient in the emergency room in a serious situation, you manage your fear, your revulsion and, at the same time, you are trying to calm the person by telling them it will be okay.” Another example: customer service representatives have to be calm even when the customer is angry and work to de-escalate the situation.

“Managing your emotions and the other person’s is hard work. It’s a skill and it’s crucial, but not a highly paid skill,” she says. “We assume the cashier at Jimmy John’s is capable of doing that without valuing it very much.”

Some argue that certain people have better skills than others and more seamlessly manage emotions, which is known as emotional intelligence. Although it’s not a perfect correlation, lower-level employees are expected to be better at managing emotions.

“We’re intimidated by leaders and let them be gruff, but the secretary has to be very accommodating and so forth,” Shuler says.

According to Shuler, individual coping tips for employees who do emotional labor are similar to those for dealing with stress: taking deep breaths, counting to 10, realizing it’s not really about them, or walking away from the situation for a moment to collect their thoughts and feelings.

“In my research, however, the more important coping strategies are more communal and interactive in nature,” Shuler says. It is important for employees to have a “backstage” area away from customers or clients where they can do what is needed to recover from and cope with the difficulties of emotional labor.

Employers play a role. “It is important for employers to recognize the toll that emotional labor can take and to create for employees backstage time and space for venting and commiserating — my research participants usually call this ‘bitching’ — sharing humor about the situation, and for co-workers to provide social support,” Shuler says.

She says it’s often helpful to lean on teamwork, and maybe have another employee step in to provide backup. These latter strategies require forethought on the part of the employer and co-workers, she says, and a recognition that laboring with ones’ emotions can be difficult, but sometimes also rewarding. In order to receive the rewards, however, the emotional work needs to happen in a supportive environment.