Understanding Primary Emotions: A Holiday Survival Skill
women discussing primary emotions

women discussing primary emotions

The holidays are full of family, feasts, parties, and gifts. It can be a time full of love, community, delicious treats, and exciting moments, but it can also be a time of stress, guilt, financial difficulties, and overstimulation. The holidays can be complicated for our emotions, and even more complicated when we try to stuff those emotions away, put on a smile, and then wonder why we snap when we stub our toes or a car pulls out in front of us on the way home.

Emotions are electrical and chemical signals in the body that alert you to what’s happening. These signals travel to the limbic system in the brain, the part of our brain involved in basic survival instincts, (and affected by addiction), and signal our body to respond to a situation.

We can’t control what we feel. The more you stuff those emotions down, the more they will come up in some other way. The more you pretend you aren’t feeling something, the more you will feel it. Have you ever tried to suppress the giggles? Impossible! But with some knowledge about what you are feeling, you can have some power over your reactions to these emotions.

We often have two emotions to any situation: the primary emotion and the secondary. A primary emotion is the initial reaction to what is happening. This is a strong feeling, it comes on quickly, and it doesn’t involve thinking about what’s happening.

Then comes your secondary emotion. These are your emotional reaction to your primary emotions, and there can be more than one.

Your initial, primary emotion can set off a chain reaction of multiple, often upsetting secondary emotions. This is why it is so helpful to know what you’re feeling. To know what that primary emotion is when it arises, to identify it, and to deal with that emotion, that situation, before the plethora of emotions to come. Sounds much more manageable, doesn’t it?

Practice paying more attention to the initial reaction you have to any particular situation. Try not to judge it, change it, or hide it. Just notice it. Notice how your body feels, what experiences you have, and try to label the emotion. Do you feel fear, before you start laughing when someone screams “boo!”? Do you feel anxiety when you look at the pile of dishes after your Christmas dinner, before you turn away and ignore that situation until morning?

Labeling your primary emotion gives you some power, it takes the mystery away, and gives you one emotion to experience, to deal with. How much easier does that sound than snapping when a car pulls out in front of you after a long, stressful day of accumulated, unnoticed emotions?

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