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The Model of Emotions: Understanding and Describing Emotions

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The Model of Emotions: Understanding and Describing Emotions


Understanding and describing emotions can be a difficult process. You may not always be sure of how you feel or why you feel that way. This makes it difficult to manage and regulate your emotional experiences. Understanding and describing emotions is a necessary skill to better manage your mental state. This can be done through the model of emotions.



The model of emotions breaks down your emotional experience into 6 parts. After an emotional experience, you can fill in the information for each part as you experienced it to help process and bring into awareness the pieces that may not be as clear initially. Many times, when you are struggling with describing emotions and unsure of what it is that you are feeling, using this model will help.


The way to take control over your emotions and better manage and regulate them is to observe and describe your experience, considering all the components involved and placing them where they belong in the model of emotions.  These components are the prompting event, interpretations, vulnerabilities, biological factors, experience, expressions, and aftereffects. Thinking about things in this way will help you have more insight into how you operate and what your triggers are. It also helps to separate yourself from your emotions and not feel stuck in them. The overall idea is to process an emotional experience so that you can start describing emotions and be more effective in managing them. 



  • Prompting Events: The event or cue that sets off the emotion. Prompting events can be internal or external. Internal prompts are your own thoughts, behaviors, and physical response. External prompts are circumstances or environments leading to the emotion. This can include other people and something someone else does. Prompting events can trigger an emotion automatically without you having to give thought to what is happening. This is why the model of emotions is so beneficial, because you learn to be more aware of prompting events as they occur and the types of things that trigger a specific emotion. You can then avoid certain situations, problem solve to change the situation, or learn to better cope.


  • Interpretations: Oftentimes, the facts of the prompting event are not what triggers the emotion, rather it’s one’s interpretations of the event. Our interpretations are based off our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and judgements. For example, you are walking down the street and see a friend but they don’t say hi. You interpret this as they are mad at you or they don’t like you, and this can lead to anger, fear, or sadness. It’s possible you were mistaken and it was not actually someone you know. It could also be that they just didn’t see you. Therefore, how you see the situation itself, and what prompted the emotion, is not actually accurate. Separating facts (i.e. the prompting event) from interpretations is a key factor in the model of emotions and the main advantage of processing events in this way.


  • Vulnerability Factors: The things that increase your sensitivity and likelihood of an event leading to an emotional reaction. Our physical wellbeing, such as being sick, lack of sleep, or substance use make us more vulnerable. Already being stressed or overwhelmed also increases sensitivity.  Another vulnerability factor is repetition of a behavior. For example, if someone asks you to do something for the 5th time, you are more likely to react emotionally than the first 4 times. Knowing what your vulnerability factors are and being mindful of them is a vital part of emotional regulation.


  • Biological Changes: An emotional response will trigger a biological reaction. When we experience an emotion, it sets off a chemical response in our brain. This component is important for 2 reasons. First, sometimes we are not aware of the emotion until we feel the biological change. Therefore, it is important to recognize that this experience is a signal that there is an emotion for you to regulate. Secondly, you can alleviate emotional responses by managing the biological change with things like deep breathing and meditation.


  • Experiences: This is what we internally sense in our body through our five senses. The experience can be related to biology, interpretations, emotion, or a combination of these things. Just as with the biological changes, we use the experience as signals and to help figure out what emotion we are feeling when we might be unsure. You can then change the experience by regulating the biology, emotion, or interpretations. Our action urges are also part of the experiences. Action urges are what we want to do and say as a result our emotion. It is important to be aware of our action urges because many times acting on the urge will not be the most effective action in the long term. For example, if you are angry, you may feel like punching someone, but that is likely not the best way to handle the situation.


  • Expressions: What happens externally. What we show with our body language and what we do and say. We have less control of our biological and internal experiences, but we can govern our actions and how we proceed. Being aware of all the pieces will allow you to be in the driver’s seat and choose what you do rather than act impulsively.


  • After Effects: The consequences or results of this whole process and experience. This includes our thoughts, memories, physical functioning, future behaviors and thought processes.


  • Secondary Emotions: Emotions caused by our reactions to the primary or initial emotion. For example, you may feel anger and then guilt for feeling that way. Sometimes our consciousness skips right over our primary emotions right to the secondary one. Other times we may not be aware of our secondary emotions. The mix of all emotions can be confusing and lead to an inability to move forward. That is why being aware that we have both primary and secondary emotions is necessary as a way to better regulate and manage our emotional experiences.


Remember, knowledge is power. You can’t fix something unless you know what you are fixing. When it comes to managing stress and regulating emotions, you can’t do so without being aware of all the components involved. Therefore, if you can get in the habit of framing things using the model of emotions, you will be better able to identify your emotions and process them.

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