Emotions: their causes and purposes


By Robert Mitchell
PCC Board member and retired counselor

After 40 years of psychotherapy practice and study this is a snippet of what I have discovered about emotional process in people.
We (humans being in general) were created to have and experience feelings. Born with the capacity to experience feelings that tells us when we are hungry, thirsty, need to go to the bathroom, are sick, have damaged our bodies, a bug is crawling on our skin, etc. The primary purpose of these feelings is to help us take care of or manage our bodies. Emotions which are a bio-chemical electrical process are one type of these feelings and their primary purpose is to help us manage our relationships. The most active or interactive relationship we have is with ourselves, and then comes those most important to us, etc. They provide us the ability to connect emotionally to each other.
There are around five hundred words in the English language that are expressive of emotions, yet our primary emotions can be broken down to five that we are born with the capacity to feel when there is no brain damage.  These include SAD, MAD, SCARED, GLAD, AND SEXUAL. Each has its own unique cause and purpose and is felt on a continuum of feeling, from not feeling much of the emotion to feeling it so intensely that it seems overwhelming. The other emotion words that we use, seem to be words that are different intensities of these emotions or combinations of them. For instance, words for MAD can include irritated, frustrated, angry, guilt, enraged, etc.
Understanding our emotions, what causes them, what purpose they have, how they function and how to use them can benefit our relationships and help us navigate through them more successfully with fewer problems.

  • SADNESS is caused by perceived loss real or imaginary and the significance of that loss to the individual dictates the intensity of the emotion.
  • ANGER/MAD is caused by not getting want you want and the importance of that want dictates how intense the mad response is.
  • SCAREDNESS is caused by perceived threat real or imagined (physical or social).
  • GLADNESS is caused by getting what you want.
  • SEXUAL feelings are also connected to real or imagined process.
 The imagining process (fantasy) involved with all these emotions is one thing that makes books and movies so successful as the best of books and movies tend to invite emotion in people and people want to feel their emotions, ie: want to feel alive. Emotions are sort of like friendly visitors, they come and they go.  The good ones (the ones we like)  we want to have stay longer and the bad ones we want to get rid of sooner.  Emotions become problematic when they are too intense for too long or when we find them negative and/or uncomfortable, and when we engage in behavior that causes us problems as a result of the emotion.
The emotions SAD, MAD, GLAD, SCARED AND SEXUAL all have the process of building to a peak of intensity, at which point we want and need release and relief for our physical and emotional health, otherwise this build up creates chronic stress and can lead to serious problems in our relational lives, or emotional lives, and with our physical health.
In order to get this release and relief requires expression of our emotions which can be subtle or explosive. Effective and healthy release and relief of  emotions require behavior that is not harmful to our relationships, others, or us.  This becomes complicated as many of the behaviors involve acting out as in crying, yelling, trembling, laughing, etc., and there are hundreds of possible choices of behavior for the expression of each emotion some of which prove to be ineffective some of which lead to time in jail, etc.  Our emotions are a natural response created by our perceptions in the moment and involve
little choice, while our thoughts and behaviors provide us with many choices.  In our society we are held responsible for our behavior.
We create our emotions primarily through our thoughts and imaginary thinking (fantasies) both consciously and unconsciously. Many are reactions to things outside of us and may not at the time seem to involve a choice.  However, the choice of what behaviors we will use when experiencing our emotions in life often determine how our relationships will turn out in marriage, in career, in friendships and within ourselves. Working on this process in therapy and counseling to develop healthy thoughts that create manageable emotions and to choose healthy behavior to express our emotions so that we are successful in our lives, i.e., relationships can be a very important direction for that counseling process to make effective changes.