What Is the Definition of Primary Emotions?

Recognizing primary emotions and reducing secondary emotions

PTSD Treatment by Brain Treatment Center. Credit: The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

Primary emotions are those that occur as a direct result of encountering some kind of cue. For example, if someone is late for a meeting that is scheduled, she may experience frustration or concern. These emotions would be considered a primary emotion, because the emotion occurred as a direct consequence of encountering some kind of event.

Learn more about primary emotions and their relationship to secondary emotions with this review.

What Makes Primary Emotions Stand Out

Primary emotions are "fast-acting." That is, they occur in close proximity to the event that brought them on. Primary emotions are important, because they provide us with information about our current situation and get us ready or motivated to act in some way.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience strong emotions. If you have PTSD, you may experience sadnessanger or anxiety when you're reminded of the traumatic event or at other stressful moments. These emotional reactions are all primary. 

Sometimes, however, emotions occur in response to having other emotions. For example, you might feel shame about being anxious or sad or anxiety because you're angry. This type of emotional reaction is called a secondary emotion.

Understanding Primary and Secondary Emotions

If someone cuts you off in traffic, you'll probably feel irritated or angry.

In this situation, anger or irritation is a primary emotion, because it occurred as a direct consequence of the event (being cut off in traffic). Or, if you start remembering the loss of someone you care about, the primary emotion you might feel is sadness.

Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are less useful.

Secondary emotions are the emotions we have in response to having primary emotions.

Let's go back to the example of someone cutting you off in traffic. You first feel the primary emotion of anger. However, let's say you were brought up to believe that it is not okay to be angry, or you fear that when you feel anger, you'll lose control and do something impulsive. If this is how you evaluate your primary emotion, anger, you'll probably feel shame or anxiety as a secondary emotion.

Secondary emotions don't pass quickly or provide useful information, but they do tend to stick around for a long time. They're also problematic because they can "take over" from primary emotions, effectively blocking them. As a result, secondary emotions can keep you from getting information from your primary emotions and acting on it in healthy ways. You could think of this as a way of trying to avoid your emotions.

How Can You Reduce Your Secondary Emotions?

The first step in reducing your secondary emotions is to increase your overall emotional awareness.

  Self-monitoring exercises may help. In these exercises, you identify and evaluate your emotional responses to situations, trying to capture the kinds of secondary emotions that arise from your primary ones.

The goal is to learn to challenge your thoughts or be more mindful of your thoughts. You practice not taking your secondary emotions at face value or as truth, but simply as emotions you're having only because you've had them before in the same types of situations, and it's become a habit.

Over time, getting into the habit of recognizing and challenging your secondary emotions can help you reduce their effects. That way, you can stay in touch with your primary emotions long enough to act on them in healthy ways.

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