The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.


References, and a fuller account of this and its broader implications, can be found in ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’, by David R Hamilton PhD (Amazon UK

For live online talks covering self esteem, the mind-body connection, kindness, plus life and spiritual, check out my Personal Development Club.

5 thoughts on “The 4 Components of Emotion

  1. Hi David

    Thanks so much for sharing this article. I so enjoyed your course last summer and found it all brilliantly helpful – but this section about the 4 strands of emotion has been invaluable in informing my practice with clients. When they see this explained (I always draw it – clients love to see my very dodgy illustrations and it means they can take scratchings away to reinforce their learning), it brings immediate relief. I’ve watched almost immediate transformation in very powerless clients who feel more hopeful and empowered simply by understanding it.

    So much has happened since we last met. My Human Toolbox Programme came to the attention of the Wellbeing Group down here in Suffolk (part of the NHS) and they secured funding to enable me to pilot Human Toolbox therapy groups using a combination of psycho education and talking therapy. The outcomes have been outstanding and I’m busy analysing the data and putting together a document to support a national rollout. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. I always knew the programme was effective but I didn’t have the clinical evidence, and now I do.
    Armed with this I am now ready to write my book. Following my presentation at Lendrick you offered to introduce me to your editor at Hay House if I send you a couple of sample chapters – and I wondered if that offer still stands. I’d be enormously grateful – it’s time my little character ‘Boddy’ made his debut I think.

    I hope all is well with you and Elizabeth – it sounds like you have a fabulous adventure ahead of you with your new home.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Warm regards

    Lindy X

  2. Vivian Dickson

    I only “met” you a couple of weeks ago via my sister Maggie in Scotland. It was lovely to see someone doing the follow up scientifically on things we, my sister and I, have known for years, although you do put it so plainly that almost anyone can understand. Will be visiting Scotland in late August/September and would love to take part in one of your courses. Best Regards Vivian

  3. 7

    If the point of self-reflection is to realize I am not this or that but simply “I am” then why all of these physical descriptions of emotions in this post? Emotions are chemicals and hence apply only to the body and those who identity with it. Perhaps these exercises are simply a good means to arrive at that place?

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