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Although we think that we know how we feel, the sensations of anger, anxiety, hunger, or illness are more alike than we realize.
We may sometimes misinterpret those signals with grave consequences. But there are some practical ways to gain control of our feelings.
Charles Darwin popularized the theory of emotional fingerprints - that each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expression, body language, and other physiological cues such as a heart rate.
But recently detailed analyses suggest there is no such thing. Each emotion is represented by a whole range of reactions. The way we interpret our body's signals, such as excited or anxious, depends entirely on the context of the situation and can be easily framed by our expectations.
We learn interpretations from others. Your familiar emotion concepts come from your particular social context - your parents, friends, TV, and books, and your own past life experiences.
Other cultures will connect different kinds of meaning from the same sensory input. Utka Eskimos appear to have no clearly defined concept of anger, and Tahitians seem not to share our concept of sadness.
States like hunger, fatigue, or illness produce the same signals as emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness. This shows the importance of looking after your body as a way to stabilise your mood.
You can take steps now to influence your future emotional experiences.
Knowing your real emotion can provide a deeper understanding of the situation you are in, such as reframing your unhappiness, so it no longer feels so all-consuming. You may also reconsider the source of your discomfort. Eventually, you may be able to categorise a situation with precision.
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