Emotions play a central role in our lives. Understanding how we process emotions can provide great insight into our mental health, relationships, decision-making and more. Researchers have identified four key stages that our brains go through when processing emotions. Being aware of these stages can help us better regulate our feelings and behaviors. Here is an overview of the four stages of emotion processing:
The first stage of emotion processing is generation. This is when an emotion first arises in response to some trigger or event, whether internal or external. For example, you might suddenly feel a pang of anxiety before a big presentation at work. Or a wave of sadness might wash over you when you receive bad news. Emotion generation happens very rapidly and automatically without conscious thought. The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain, is responsible for detecting emotional significance in one’s environment and triggering emotional responses. It acts as an alarm system that generates emotions – especially our more primal ones like fear and anger – in reaction to potential threats or dangers.
Once an emotion has been generated, the next stage is becoming aware of it. This involves the conscious recognition of the type of emotion we are experiencing along with associated bodily sensations. For example, feeling knots in your stomach and rapid heartbeat along with the conscious realization that you are anxious. Awareness of emotions relies on input from the body and sensory cortices in the brain which relay physiological signals and information. Interoception is our ability to detect internal bodily sensations which is an important part of emotional awareness. The more in tune we are with our body’s signals, the better we become at identifying how we feel.
After an emotion has arisen and we have become aware of it, the next critical stage is acceptance. This means allowing ourselves to feel the emotion rather than resisting it or pushing it away. Acceptance requires nonjudgmentally recognizing the presence of an emotion without necessarily acting on it. For example, acknowledging that you feel anger towards someone, but choosing not to lash out at them. Acceptance may involve simply saying to yourself “This is anger. This anger is here right now.” Rather than suppressing or ignoring emotions, acceptance helps us process them more healthily so they dissipate naturally.
The final stage of emotion processing is regulation. This involves influencing what emotions we have, when we have them and how they are expressed. There are two main emotion regulation strategies. Cognitive reappraisal means changing your thinking to alter the meaning of a situation and hence modify your emotional response. For example, a traffic jam might initially trigger anger but looking at it as an opportunity to listen to music helps reframe the meaning and changes your reaction. Response modulation involves directly influencing emotional response tendencies by suppressing, amplifying or maintaining a particular emotion. Taking deep breaths when angry is response modulation aimed at suppression. Allowing yourself to fully sob in grief helps amplify and process the sadness. Regulation helps ensure emotions are expressed in appropriate, constructive ways rather than uncontrolled outbursts.
Mastering the four stages of emotion processing takes mindfulness, self-awareness and practice. But doing so enables us to respond to life’s events in more controlled, beneficial ways. Having insight into when emotion generation first begins helps with early intervention before things escalate out of control. Noticing bodily signals of emotion improves emotional awareness. Allowing ourselves to feel emotions fully is essential for healthy processing. And developing regulation skills helps prevent destructive emotional reactions. Getting in touch with how you process emotions can lead to greater emotional intelligence and well-being.