The Value in Emotion – Understanding

The ability to involve conscious processing with something as fundamental as the creation of meaning, social relatedness, and perceptual processing certainly does give us an increase in the flexibility of our responses to the environment.

Having a consciousness of emotions is especially important in the social environment.

Without it, we are likely not to be aware of our own or others’ intentions and motives. Awareness of emotional processes, our shifts in integration, has value for our survival as a social species: We can know our own minds as well as those of others, and can negotiate the complex interpersonal world with increased skill and effectiveness at meeting our needs.

Siegel, 2020

The Value in Emotion - Part One: Understanding

What is this thing we call ‘emotion’?  This evocative energy that innately stirs from deep within?  What is this flow of potential that arises well before the mechanisms of our mind provide us the capacity to perceive and interpret its value and meaning?

And, even if we understand the nuances of this thing we call ‘emotion’, how do we come to achieve flexible and adaptive emotional regulation?

It is my hopes here to articulate a response to some of these questions before offering a process of compassionate communication with Self that may assist you in coming to appreciate, process, express, and thus regulate the nuances of the emotions that stir from within you.

So, what is this thing that we call emotion?

Though there are many ways to perceive and interpret the qualitative and quantitative aspects of emotions, I have come to appreciate that emotion can be seen as an energy that evokes motion – it is the motivational force behind why we do what we do.  Filled with instinctual and value-oriented meaning, emotions are the vitality affects that reflect any alteration to the energy and information flows within and between Self, Other and World.  Such shifts in flows emerge from our inner and inter- environmental interactions in combination with our neuroceptive capacity to access safety, danger, or life threat.  This indicating the importance of emotion as fundamental to allostasis, to how we survive and thrive.

Therefore, when understanding emotion, it may be important to view it less as a ‘some-thing’ with noun like properties, rather to view it as an embodied and relational process that holds a subjective texture within the mind; such subjective texture enabling the idiosyncratic coordination and balance of our uniquely differentiated physiological, psychological, and relational systems.

Simply put: Emotion involves shifts in integration within and between individuals.  These shifts reflect alterations in states of arousal and the ongoing appraisal of value and meaning.

Therefore, when emotions are consciously differentiated, understood for their innate value and their socially constructed meaning, then linked to more cognisant aspects of feeling and thinking, the motivational mechanisms that lead to our unique expressive tendencies can become clearer, more coherent, and in turn our capacity to monitor and modify them with flexibility (regulation) increases.

With conscious clarity of our emotions and the unique movements they stir within us, we are better able to be attuned to our Self, Other, and the World in the co-creation of meaning and relatedness.

The Value in Emotion

It can be important to remember that, whilst how we perceive and interpret our emotion is changed through social interaction, evolutionarily emotions encapsulate affective and neuroceptive signals that enhance survival.  They are the pleasant or unpleasant internal indications (sensations available through interoception) that allow us to go out into the world in exploration whilst alerting us to what is safe, dangerous, or life-threatening.  This is an appetitive and defensive process that begins with a shift in our physiological state resulting from an initial orientation, appraisal, and arousal process. 

It is this process that initiates an emotional response which allows us, as mammals, to collect and protect the resources required not just to survive, but to thrive.

Significantly here we must remember that a primary resource (universal need) for all humans is connection, protection, and belonging (attachment).  Indeed, without being resourced with CARE we may not endure the dependencies of childhood.  Therefore, it cannot be negated that a part of our orientation, appraisal, and arousal processing and the emotional response it produces will always involve a scope of social referencing.  Therefore, these emotional processes are both inner and interpersonally contextual.

Holding this in mind we come to see that orientation is the initial internal state of increased alertness that moves our system to a brief microsecond state of “pay attention, something important is happening here”.  This initial orientation then, again within microseconds, moves from a non-representational sensory energy into an elaborative appraisal-arousal process that evaluates the informational meaning of stimulus, then the directs the flow of energy through our systems; this in turn evoking the activation and deactivation of certain circuits – a ‘motion’ of sorts.

This is the unfolding process of what initiates an emotion.  It is the energy that contains value-based information which evokes motion (orientation-appraisal-arousal to reaction/response).

That is, if orientation is the non-representational sensory energy of “pay attention”; and appraisal is part of the perceptive process that takes in exteroceptive and interoceptive signals and evaluates its contextual meaning; then, arousal is part of the interpretive process that directs the flow of energy and representational information through the system preparing us for an affective response.

To exemplify this concept, we might take the example of a young woman walking home after catching up with some friends.  At first, she is walking reminiscing on the wonderful time she had.  Her trail of thought is interrupted as something stirs within.  Already in this example we can note that there is a slight yet swift change in her state – this is the initial phase of orientating.  How this young woman perceives and interprets the contextual ques through the next phase of appraisal-arousal will affect the emotional response that is evoked.  Let us say that this woman is walking home during the day, and she perceives that it was a sound that interrupted her flow of internal reminiscing.  As it is light, and she is fully able to observe and take in the world around her, she interprets the sound as simply the wind rustling the trees.  She notices her body relax as she continues to walk home feeling a sense of what we may interpret as the categorical emotions of ease and contentment.  In contrast, should this woman be walking home during the evening, she may once again perceive it to be a sound interrupting her flow of internal reminiscing, however in this context, due to the darkness, she now struggles to interpret what is happening and thus perceives the sound to be a possibility of danger.  Her heart begins beating faster and her breath becomes shallow and stammered.  The arousal is overwhelming and quickly manifests into a state of unpleasant high affect that we might interpret as the categorical emotion of fear.

Intensity, Sensitivity, Specificity

Part of these sensory, perceptive, and interpretive processes includes how, over time, we have come to make sense of the various energy and information flows and how we have adaptively come to respond to such.  As discussed above these various flows are the initial sensory-body-based signals that result in an internal shift (i.e. the initial orientation followed by the elaborating arousal-appraisal processes).  These shifts can also be viewed as belonging to what we might name a primary emotion.  As the appraisal-arousal process unfolds and we begin to sense the signals of these primary emotions, higher cortical processes are recruited in a process of differentiation.  This is where a more recognisable unfolding of the energy we are perceiving begins to be evaluated for its representational information; this then allowing us to more cognisantly align with what we are interoceptively and exteroceptively sensing and interpret the flows of energy and information by placing them into categorical form.  That is, we can identify and use language to nuance what we are internally experiencing (i.e. I am feeling sad).  These categorical emotions are patterns of energy and information flow that inherently incorporate elements of intensity, sensitivity, and specificity.

It is important to remember that the brain develops contextually and thus we each have a unique intensity, sensitivity, and specificity profile to our emotions that is influenced by both our constitutional makeup as well as by adaptations occurring from our unique experiences.  Importantly, characteristics such as intensity and sensitivity, alongside inborn proclivities to either approach or avoid novelty, particularly influence the aspect of specificity – the value and meaning assigned to a particular stimulus; this in turn influencing experiential adaptations to our emotional profile.

Emotional Intensity

Intensity is the ability of our elaborative appraisal-arousal system to respond with various degrees in the strength of the arousal.  Interestingly, “the brain appears to be able to modify the intensity of response by altering the numbers of neurons that fire and the amounts of neurotransmitters released in response to a stimulus.  Degrees of arousal have a wide range.  If initial appraisal and arousal mechanisms minimally activate in the body and brain, then the elaborating appraisal-arousal response will also be minimal” (Siegel, 2020).  This is an embodied process that monitors and mediates what is sensed in the body whilst incorporating emotional meaning.  That is, what is perceived and then interpreted from interoceptive and exteroceptive sensations forms an arousal with a certain degree of strength. 

For example, in the first instance above the young woman’s initial appraisal and arousal minimally activated the body and brain, thus the elaborating appraisal-arousal activation and her emotional response was accordingly minimal; in other words, in this first instance the young woman felt a small amount of unease that quickly dissipated.  In contrast in the second instance whilst the initial orientation might have also had a minimal appraisal-arousal activation (unease), the elaborating appraisal-arousal activation quickly intensified and perpetuated (fear).

Emotional Sensitivity

Sensitivity can be seen as a threshold or baseline of the appraisal-arousal system: the minimum amount of stimulus required to activate an initial orientation, appraisal, and arousal.  Importantly there are certain elements of genetic and environmental influence that impact sensitivity in a manner that may mean certain individuals have “hair-line reactions”.  That is, individuals with “hair-line reactions” may either have a genetically derived low threshold (i.e. neurodivergence inclusive of HSP, Autism, ADHD, and the like) and/or repeated patterns of confusing or overwhelming emotional experiences that have resulted in an implicit hypervigilance to stimuli have shaped said low threshold.  Meaning, whilst some individuals may have a “thick-skin” and infrequent orientation, appraisal-arousal responses, other individuals may live a life filled with frequent embodied awakenings that communicate the orientation message of “this is important, pay attention”, which in turn readily activates the reciprocating appraisal-arousal mechanisms of response.

Sensitivity is also context-specific and can be influenced by recent experience.  This in itself is a fundamental physiological property of all living organisms, whereby any recent familiarity of a stimulus (sensory or semantic) will affectively prime the later processing of a similar stimulus.

It is important not to negate neuroplasticity, thus whilst sensitivity is an embodied propensity it is also, to a certain extent, malleable.  This may mean that despite dispositional and spatiotemporal proclivities, due to the nature of our elaborating appraisal-arousal mechanisms, with intention and attention to the patterns of energy and information flows within the body and brain, an individual may be able to increase flexibility in response.

Going back to our example of the young woman walking home, this may mean that in the second instance where appraisal-arousal elaborated and intensified, there had been a context specific priming of the appraisal of danger and the emotional arousal of fear.  This priming may have occurred within a conversation the young woman had with a friend alerting her to a recent experience of a woman being stalked in the area.  The friend’s intention to prevent danger, primed the young woman’s mind to be more sensitive to environmental ques, potentiating vulnerability to threat and the quick perception and interpretation of the ques as dangerous.

As we can see the young woman’s mind was primed for danger and thus there was a sensitivity to perceived vulnerability that induced the emotional arousal of fear.  An alternative contextual influence that may lead to the young woman to be more sensitive to the environmental appraisal of danger, as well as a more intense arousal of terror as opposed to fear, could be due to repeated experiences of unattended alarmed aloneness as a child.  A consequence of such experience may have led this woman to have an embodied fear of the dark that may at times evoke intense emotional arousal.  In this situation the priming has occurred implicitly over time and may induce an emotional appraisal-arousal that appears out-of-proportion to the current stimuli. 

Emotional Specificity

Further to emotional intensity and emotional sensitivity, is emotional specificity.  Simplistically defined, a stimulus that elicits a specific emotional response is said to have specificity.  Importantly however, specificity can be seen as the value and meaning assigned to a stimulus that allows the brain to regulate the flow of energy within the reciprocating elaboration of appraisal-arousal.  Notably, Siegel (2020) states, “the representations activated at any moment, including the context of the situation, help shape the specific direction of stimulus appraisal elicited.  The specificity of elaborated and differentiated appraisal directly shapes arousal and thus determines the specific type of emotional experience that unfolds.”

That is to say, value systems within the body and brain serve to differentiate “pleasant” from “unpleasant” stimuli, and thus approach-avoid value distinctions which in turn serve in the arousal process of emotion and motivational affect.  Furthermore, increasingly complex systems of value and meaning attribution that evolve throughout the lifespan lead to increasing complexity within variations of the initial processes of orientation, and the elaborating processes of appraisal-arousal.  “We are unique individuals precisely because our value systems and our interactional histories are one-of-a-kind combinations.  As the intertwined nature of stimulus-response and environmental encounter unfolds, each of us continually emerges and defines ourselves” (Siegel, 2020).

As with the example of the young woman walking home, in the first instance, as the woman’s brain began to process her stimulated state, it began to assign perceptive meaning to the various aspects of what she was hearing as well as seeing.  The context of daytime and thus increased peripheral vision held representational information that allowed the young woman to perceive safety and interpret the noise as the rustling of bushes caused by the wind.  The emotional arousal returning to felt sense of calm and content.  Conversely, in the second instance, the context of night-time reduced peripheral vision, alongside the primed sensitivity created by the friend, led the stimulus to hold representational information that evoked a perceptive vulnerability and an interpretation of the unknown as threatening and dangerous.  The emotional arousal was then felt as fear, which may then evoke further appraisal-arousals that are reciprocally influenced.  Fear without solution often evokes a recursive and deepening fearful state.

Whilst the concept of specificity is a complex recursive process of evaluation that continually appraises the value and meaning of a stimulus, it is also an embodied phenomenon that allows us to more cognisantly perceive, interpret, and thus differentiate primary emotions into categorical emotions.  This in turn allows us to bring conscious awareness to the emotional appraisal-arousal process.  Meaning, with awareness of specificity, we can cultivate the capacity to regulate the flow of energy and information by acknowledging the value and meaning of the sensations, perceptions, and interpretations we have made in the reciprocating appraisal-arousal process.

Final Thoughts

With specificity alongside sensitivity and intensity in mind, we can begin to see that emotional regulation is indeed a complex process that involves a nuanced awareness of the multitude of affective facets within the initial orientation, and elaborating appraisal-arousal activations that recruit emotional responses.

And whilst initially this awareness may seem beyond the scope of our capacity for regulation, we can tamper it down to an understanding that simply holds an intention to pay attention to the sensations, the perceptions, and the interpretations that are elicited from various situations (stimulus) and how we react (response) to them.

More specifically, we can set an intention to understand the above nuances of emotion and how they uniquely evoke a momentum within us.  Taking note of how various contexts or stimuli meaningfully impact us – curiously asking ourselves, what am I thinking, what am I feeling, what might I need here in this moment?

For with mindful awareness to our sensations, perceptions, and interpretations, or with the intention to identify patterns of orientation, appraisal-arousal we can slowly begin to compassionately connect to ourselves with an understanding of our innate and universal needs.  And remarkably, with compassionate connection and contingent communication to either an Other or our Self, emotional regulation and the mindful ability to respond with attuned reciprocity innately unfolds.

Learn more about mindful awareness with a practice that connects you to the subjective textures of your sensations, perceptions, and interpretations through a process of compassionate connection with your Self.

Access the practice in part two HERE

Welcome, my name is Chele, I am a therapist primarily specialising in Trauma &  Burnout.   As a psychotherapist & PACFA registered Counsellor I work individually with beautiful humans such as yourself who feel alone, lost, confused, & overwhelmed; those of you who are longing for something different.

As such, I offer my knowledge, skills, and inherent gifts with ears that listen to hear, and a heart open to receive who you are, no matter the suffering you bring; to support you in an exploration of how your past has impacted you and the ways that shows up presently. Together we will rediscover your hope and your sense of Self; we will reconnect you to what matters reclaiming the joy and delight in life you so deserve.

I welcome you to view my services or connect with me to explore how I can assist you in your journey.