Or are they just a physiological response to stimulus according to how our trauma patterns have shaped over the years? Could it be that they're just a combination of how our neurons and other cells relate to one-another? Or the way in which each of our respective amygdalae respond to perceived threats? Or the way that our sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous systems switch between one another?
I recently took a course with Steve Haines, a teacher whom I studied under many years ago and deeply admire. I don't think I'd be the practitioner I am today without his guidance. Citing brilliant minds such as Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Candice Pert, and Jaak Pancep among others, we explored these concepts.
To break it down, the idea here is that we develop physiological patterns that cause us to respond to stimulus in different ways that we later put labels to (aka emotions) to make sense out of the world. For instance, a bear spots you in the woods and stares you down. You're pupils dilate, your adrenaline ramps up, and before you know what's happening, you're running or frozen. We might call this fear, but our body has responded before we know what's actually happening.
Or you meet your new 8-month old niece who smiles at you; your muscles loosen, your blood flow is slightly less constricted, and your mandible relaxes as your lips form a smile, instinctively. You did this as a reaction, not a predetermined plan. One might call this joy, delight, or even love. Which emotion would you name that as?
Far be it for me to take all of the romanticism out of emotion, I merely want to point out the base of what makes us tick. Let's take that one step further and say that what we know as emotions and personality is our tendency to react to stimulus that we might perceive as a hinderance to our survival. If this sounds a little too out there for you, think about the different type of drivers you know or how you yourself react behind the wheel.
Dr. Barrett uses road rage as the prime example of this concept. When a person drives recklessly and cuts you off in traffic, you have choices. You can honk the horn in anger and curse at the person for endangering you and your passengers, you can laugh at their recklessness, or you can show concern that they might be rushing somebody somewhere in the event of an emergency. In other words, we're reacting to constructed predictions based off of our physiological responses of the situations we encounter or might encounter in the world. Predictions we make from past experiences.
As Dr. Barrett puts it "Emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal, but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, your culture and upbringing which provide that environment."
This is a hard concept to accept and even harder to implement into daily life. I just think that if we could feel sometimes before we think or label, we might be better at owning our "emotional" processes. We might also realize that we have choices and when you have choices, you can step into your own power. As a society, I'd like to believe this is a step into the right direction, especially in terms of empathy.