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What Is An Emotion?

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

We talk about emotions quite a bit in therapy – and for good reason! 

Expressing and analyzing our emotions in a safe environment has many powerful benefits. However, while many of us can list specific emotions – anger, sadness, happiness – we may not be able to define “emotion.” I have noticed that for many clients, defining “emotion” has helped them precisely identify and more deeply reflect on their emotions.  

An emotion can be broken down into three components represented by the acronym CPB: Cognitive, Physiological, and Behavioral.

  • Cognitive

Cognitions, or thoughts, make up one part of an emotion. Let’s go through an example using an emotion with which many of us are familiar: anxiety. Some thoughts that are associated with anxiety could include: “I am going to mess up this presentation and people are going to think I am incompetent,” or “I am never going to save enough money for a down payment on a house.” These future-focused, irrational thoughts may be in response to an activating event like being unfairly criticized at work or not getting a raise that you were promised. 

  • Physiological

The physiological, or physical, response is another component. Our mind and body are constantly absorbing and processing information – consciously, unconsciously, and subconsciously. Physiological responses to this information include fluctuations in heart rate, changes in respiratory rate, muscle tension, sweating, stomach issues, and/or hot flashes. Physiological responses typical in anxiety are increased heart rate, tightening of the chest, and/or sweating. Pay attention to your body because it is giving you important information about what you are feeling. 

  • Behavioral

When you experience an emotion, how do you behave? When feeling anxious, some people may pace the room, bite their fingernails, and/or drink alcohol. These are common behaviors for those who feeling anxious, but there are numerous others. Pay attention to what you do while experiencing your emotions. 

Wrapping Up

Identifying your emotions using only one of the three components may be challenging and misleading. For example, the cognitions (#1) you experience when feeling anxious may be like those you have when feeling overwhelmed. For the physiological (#2), you may experience similar physiological responses when feeling excited, making it difficult to differentiate the excitement from the anxiety. For the behavioral component (#3), pacing and nail biting may be behaviors you engage in also when feeling fearful. To precisely identify your emotions, consider all three components together. 

When the three components are consistent (as they are in the CPB example above), we would say that they are in synchrony. It gets interesting and confusing when the three components do not align. For example, you may be experiencing the physiological and behavioral components of anxiety, but your thoughts are optimistic and hopeful. What is going on here? 

This is known as emotional desynchrony. When this happens (and it often does), you want to take a closer look at the components and consider environmental stimuli and cues that could be subtly impacting your emotions. In a future post, I am going to write about emotional desynchrony and how you can use it to not only better understand your emotions, but also yourself.   

To get the most out of the therapy process, it may be helpful for you to write down your emotions as they are happening or shortly thereafter, using the components above. You and your therapist can then walk through these experiences to gain insight into what you felt, why you felt that way, and what you learned.

So, let’s get started– call Symmetry Counseling today at 312-578-9990.


Chapman, K. (2016). The 3 ingredients of all emotions. Psychology Today. 

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