Why Do I Have Strong Emotions?

A person with strong emotions

Article by: McKenna Hereford, Ph.D.

You’ve likely experienced a wide variety of emotions in your life, including some uncomfortable ones. Have you ever wondered WHY we experience the emotions we do as people? Well, the answer, like many things related to people, is complicated! Researchers in multiple fields have looked at the “why” question and it appears there are evolutionary influences as well as our own unique experiences. All emotions, thoughts, and behaviors can be helpful depending on the situation we are going through, and looking at potential factors can shed light on our experiences.

Did you know evolution plays a part in your own emotions? 

Disgust, for example, actually helps us avoid contamination or illness! Think about it: when you smell spoiled milk or see moldy bread, you probably experience an immediate strong reaction and quickly throw the food away. This is helpful for your survival because it dramatically reduces the chances of you getting sick compared to you actually ingesting that food. Importantly, there are also times we can override this emotion, such as if we’re starving and actually need to eat. Fear also can cause different reactions depending on the environment (fight, flight, or freeze). What about envy? Well, not only do we experience emotions to ensure our own individual survival, we likely also experience emotions to support humans as a whole. Envy, particularly in relationships, can encourage us to try to create intimacy or closeness. It also could encourage us to compete in some way related to accomplishments. Guilt and shame, really uncomfortable emotions, also ensure we maintain social relationships. If you think about times you’ve made mistakes with other people and experienced guilt or shame, you likely then feel motivated to fix the mistake and avoid it in the future. 

Another purpose for all of these emotions is to communicate reactions and information to other people. For example, if you show disgust or fear on your face, you’re communicating some kind of potential threat in the environment that the other person may need to know as well. Showing sadness or anger on your face may also elicit empathy from others, an important experience for us! Think about times recently when you’ve experienced empathy toward others. This likely builds relationships and closeness with others. Basically, it looks like evolution lays some groundwork for our own emotions!

Of course, in addition to experiences we all share, there are unique individual factors that play a role. Genetics and our personal experiences contribute to our experiences of emotion. There seems to be some genetic influence in fear and anger especially. One example is intergenerational trauma which likely leads to kids experiencing more of a fear response over other kids. Earlier experiences tend to play a role as well. Adverse childhood experiences, such as neglect or witnessing violence in the neighborhood or home, have been linked to higher rates of guilt and shame. This is particularly the case when we have more conflict with other people, leading to feelings of isolation. Another example is jealousy. Maybe you notice differences in your own experiences of jealousy versus your friends or family. Chronic or situational relationship insecurity, such as lingering trust issues resulting from infidelity in a past relationship, may lead to higher rates of jealousy. In addition to genetics and direct experiences, our own personalities may contribute to our own experiences of emotion. For example, if we tend to have a higher sensitivity toward injustice, we may also be more likely to experience anger or disgust in certain situations compared to others! Some people with higher levels of self-esteem might be better able to express or experience empathy as well. All of these examples highlight the role of our genes, experiences, and even personalities in our experiences of emotion.

What does all of this mean?

Basically, we have more layers than we give ourselves credit for! Collectively, the existence of any of our emotions has reasons linking back to evolution. But that’s not enough to get a better understanding. We also have to consider that relationship to culture, our families, and our individual experiences. For example, with anger, we might be more likely to experience that emotion due to a combination of genetics and evolution but might express that toward ourselves or toward others depending on how our culture shapes us. Our families also, directly and indirectly, play a role in how we experience emotions, especially when we are children. They might express certain emotions toward us, they might model certain emotions, and they pass on genetics that influence us. We also then have our own unique emotional experiences shaped by experiences and likely our personalities. If we think of our emotions as a jigsaw puzzle, we want to put together as many pieces as we can to at least get a gist of the big picture. Think about all the factors that could play a role in your experiences now, and how those emotions may serve you well and potentially cause concern.

If you’re looking for help in exploring your emotions, we are here to help! Schedule an appointment with us to start your journey of exploration!

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