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What Are Emotions?


Updated December 15, 2009

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If you have PTSD, you may view your emotions as unpredictable, uncontrollable and frightening. This makes sense given that people with PTSD often experience very intense and unpleasant emotions, such as fear, anxiety, anger and sadness. However, even if they feel unpleasant, emotions can still be helpful. They serve a very important purpose. This is why everyone has emotions. By learning more about our emotions, they may feel less frightening and unpredictable.

What Makes Up an Emotion?

When it comes to emotions, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, it is important to be aware of all different aspects of an emotional response. Emotions are bodily responses that are composed of three different (but related) parts.

  1. The Cognitive (Thought) Component
    The first component of an emotional response is the cognitive part, or how we label an emotional experience. When we experience an emotional response, our body is going through a lot of changes. On their own, these experiences may not mean much, but when they occur in or in response to a certain situation, we recognize them as part of an emotional response. For example, if we experience an increase in our heart rate while walking down a dark alley at night, we likely will label this experience as "anxiety" or "fear." However, if we experience an increase in heart rate upon hearing that we just won an award, we would probably label this experience as "excitement" or "joy."

  2. The Physiological (Bodily) Component
    As the name of this component implies, all emotions include some kind of bodily or physiological change. This component of an emotional response describes how our body is reacting. For example, we may experience an increase in heart rate, muscle tension, tunnel vision, or shortness of breath when experiencing anxiety or fear. These symptoms also may occur during an anger response.

  3. The Behavioral Component
    The final part of an emotional response is the behavioral piece, or what we do (or want to do) when experiencing an emotion. Emotions prepare us for action. Therefore, one aspect of an emotional response is something called an "action tendency." An action tendency is what our emotion is preparing us to do. For example, when you experience sadness, you may feel an urge to withdraw. When you experience fear, you may feel an urge to escape the situation you are in. These urges are action tendencies. Another aspect of this component of an emotional response is how an emotion is expressed. For instance, we may cry when we experience sadness or smile when we are happy.

The Importance of Increasing Emotional Awareness

By connecting with all of the different parts of an emotional experience, we can better define what emotion we are experiencing and what kind of information our emotion is giving us. For example, if a person has a fear response but he only connects with the fact that he is having a rapid heart beat, he may not act on that emotion in the best way. He may not escape a situation that is dangerous or threatening.

In addition, knowing what we are experiencing makes it easier to regulate or manage our emotions. Some coping skills are going to work better for some emotions than others. Therefore, in order to effectively manage our emotions, it is important to first understand what we are experiencing and why we are experiencing it.


Gratz, K.L. (2008). Acceptance-based Emotion Regulation Group Therapy. Unpublished treatment manual.

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