The Big Eight: The Emotions You Need to Know About to Manage Stress

All of your stress and the related problems it causes are actually the result of overlooked, ignored or misunderstood distressing emotions (read more about that here). In order to start managing and coping with stress, you need to address your emotional health and learn how to identify what emotion you’re feeling.

Believe it or not, it can be really difficult to accurately label an emotion, especially when you’re in emotion mind.

But here’s the good news—there are really just eight choices. All emotions can basically be divided into eight core categories: fear, anger, sadness, shame, disgust and jealousy on the down side, plus happiness and love to lighten things up.

This limited list makes figuring out which emotion you’re experiencing a more manageable task. Theorists love to debate exactly how many core emotions there are and what the best label for each category is, but this is the version that’s held up with my patients for nearly 20 years.

So how do you know exactly what emotion you’re feeling? Well to start with, it’s important to remember that every experience of emotion actually has six distinct parts to it. Even though sometimes these components all blur together in the heat of the moment, if you slow down and observe your experience you’ll be better able to identify them.

Every emotion has: 1) a prompting event, 2) thoughts related to the event, 3) a physical response, 4) an urge to act, 5) an action, and 6) final after-effects (which sometimes can actually be a whole new prompting event that starts another emotion cycle).

Understanding the various parts of an emotional experience is the key to being able to identify the emotion you’re feeling, and that’s the starting point for doing something about it. You can read more about the cycle of emotions here.

Another important feature of each of the emotion families is that they serve important functions for our survival. Even though it can sometimes feel like our emotions are just a pain in the butt, we actually have emotions for really good reasons. From an evolutionary perspective we can trace why humans have the emotions we do.

Identifying any of these features can help you zone in on what “emotion family” you’re dealing with at any given time, and then you can start to make Wise Mind Living choices about how to manage your emotions. Here is some background information on each of the big eight “emotion families” to help you identify the emotion you’re experiencing:


Fear is triggered by a prompting event that you perceive as dangerous or threatening, and you usually have accompanying thoughts that you might not be able to handle the situation. If you find yourself saying things like, “I need help” or “this is a disaster,” you’re probably feeling fear. The action urge that accompanies fear is the desire to avoid or escape.

The evolutionary purpose of fear is pretty obvious—fear acts as a signal to keep us away from things that are dangerous. One of the most common ways we experience fear is in the form of anxiety, and you can read more about anxiety help here. If you would describe how you’re feeling as alarmed, anxious, nervous, shy or worried, you’re experiencing the emotion of fear.


Anger is usually triggered by a prompting event in which a goal or something important to you is being blocked or taken away. One of the telltale signs that you’re feeling anger is when you find yourself saying things like “this should be different” or “they’re trying to hurt me.”

From an evolutionary perspective, anger serves as a warning signal to keep you from losing things important to your survival or to keep you from being taken advantage of. So the action urge that accompanies anger is usually to want to attack or strike back (either physically or emotionally). If you’re feeling annoyed, frustrated, irritated, insulted or rageful, you’re experiencing the emotion of anger.


Sadness is the emotion you feel when you experience a loss. It can be an actual loss of something tangible, or a figurative loss — such as the loss of potential or the idea of something you wanted very much. The action urge that accompanies sadness is to withdraw or isolate.

From an evolutionary perspective, sadness helps us to appreciate what we have and take better care to guard from losing it. If you would describe how you’re feeling as blue, defeated, discouraged, hopeless, lonely, rejected or miserable, you’re experiencing the emotion of sadness.


You experience shame when you feel that something about who you are or what you’ve done will get you kicked out of your group. Shame is a tricky one to identify sometimes. Even if you think you’re a pretty confident person, it can sneak up on you in the form of thoughts like “if they only knew the truth” or “who do I think I am trying this.”

From an evolutionary perspective, being accepted in your tribe is paramount to survival, so the action urge that accompanies shame is to hide and attempt to avoid rejection. So when you’re thinking, “Nah, I don’t want to go to my class reunion,” you can guess there might be some shame popping up. If you would describe how you’re feeling as embarrassed, humiliated, invalidated, insecure, guilty or mortified, you’re experiencing the emotion of shame.


Disgust is triggered by things that you find to be gross, dangerous and distasteful. It’s hard wired in us to avoid things that can make us sick, but we’ve all had the experience of finding much more than food disgusting.

The action urge you’ll find yourself noticing with disgust is avoidance and that universal facial expression everyone can identify to accompany the statement, “Ewwwww!” If you would describe how you’re feeling as appalled, offended, repulsed or turned off, you’re experiencing the emotion of disgust.


Jealousy is triggered when you feel something important is in jeopardy of being taken away or when you see that someone else has something that you want. The evolutionary purpose of this emotion is to help us hold onto important resources – like a mate!

And so it follows that the action urges that are triggered by feeling jealous or envious are all about trying to control what’s happening around you. If you’re feeling competitive, distrustful, envious, petty or resentful, you’re experiencing the emotion of jealousy.


Happiness is triggered by pleasurable events or getting what you want. If you feel good doing something you’ll do it more, or do other things that might achieve that good feeling. The hope for happiness is often what helps motivate you to do even the things you might not want to do but that are good for your survival.

Of course the downside is that sometimes this “pursuit of happiness” can cause you pain too. (I often tell my patients that happiness is a choice and here’s a post I wrote about that.) If you’re feeling amused, content, excited, joyful, proud or satisfied, you’re experiencing the emotion of happiness.


Love is triggered when you get your needs met and when you feel valued and respected. There’s an obvious evolutionary advantage to feeling love—it’s integral to finding a partner and passing on your genes. If you’re feeling attracted, compassionate, interested, protective, vulnerable or warm, you’re experiencing the emotion of love.