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The Physiology Of Emotions

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What are EMOTIONS?

Emotions are basically a complex experience of consciousness and they are strong impulses that demand immediate action. There is various definition of emotions.

Aristotle defined emotions as: “Emotions are the things on account of which the ones altered differ with respect to their judgments, and are accompanied by pleasure and pain: such are anger, pity, fear, and all similar emotions and their contraries.”

Hippocrates said: “Brain is the center of emotions.”

Components of emotion:

There are basically 2 major components of emotions:

  • Mental
  • Physical

Mental component includes 3 parts:

  • Cognition — awareness
  • Affect feeling itself
  • Conation urge to take action

Physical component includes:

  • Changes in visceral and skeletal muscles
  • Coordinated activity of autonomic and somatic nervous system


There are many emotions that we exhibit every day. All of these are different in nature and used to express particular feelings.

Physiology of Anger

Blood flows to our hands so that we can grab things like weapons. Our heart rate increases and we breath quickly. Adrenaline also flows in the body to prepare it for the fight situation. During anger we may feel negative and our muscles may become tense and hands clinched. The face color also turns red and sometimes it may become pale.

Physiology of Happiness

The emotion of happiness has different expressions if we are happy, we can express our happiness in different manners through smiling, laughing, playing, watching movies etc. We are happy and we are doing certain action just for our pleasure. During happiness our body relaxes. There is an increase activity in our brain center and inhibits negative feeling and increase energy.

Physiology of Surprise

Surprise is basically a state when you perceived something that you weren’t surprise itself arises many emotions. There are two kinds of surprises pleasant or unpleasant and our emotion depends upon the type of surprise. Moreover, the major physiological change that happen at that particular time is our eyes will be wide open, eyebrows lift and jaw dropped. However, there will be non-emotional and intellectual surprises as well.

Physiology of Sadness

Sadness cause a significant drop in our energy, makes us feel negative and depressed. Sadness is described as a low arousal state. During this period the body overall feel low spirited having no or little hope. In a study by Klaus Scherer, it was found that in Western countries sadness had 79% of accuracy for facial recognition and 71% for vocal, while in Non-Western countries the results were of 74% and 58%, respectively.

Physiology of Love

Psychologist Erich Fromm maintained in his book The Art of Loving that love is not merely a feeling but is also actions, and that in fact, the ‘feeling’ of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time. When we experience love we are in a parasympathetic state of arousal that is usually calming and relaxing. We feel happy and everything around us also gives us a positive vibe.

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Physiology of Fear

Fear is a state when we are frightened or we see something scary or horror. It is an emotional state of fear in which our heartbeat and pulse rate increases and we may breathe fast Stress hormone like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Blood pressure also increases. Peripheral blood vessels constrict and muscles tighten. All these changes prepare body for fight or flight situation.

“What kind of an emotion of fear would be left if the feeling neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible for me to think … I say that for us emotion dissociated from all bodily feeling is inconceivable.” William James, 1893 (Psychology: p. 379.)


There are different physiological changes that occur in body during an emotional state. These changes can be seen as internal change in body and it may be increase heart beat and respiration rate, secretion of some hormones, stiffing of muscles etc.

External changes in the body

External physiological changes in the body are those that marks a prominent change in the body during the state of emotional arousal. There are a lot of physiological changes that occur outside the body. Some of them are explained as below:

  1. Voice changes: Voice change is one the important change that we may notice during an emotion. Voice depends on the type of emotion we are facing and it changes accordingly.
  2. Facial expression changes: Different emotions make our facial expressions change. We may seem smiling if we are happy and tense if we are worried. The expression on our face clearly changes and the emotion can be judged by looking at our face.
  3. Changes in body language: Body language helps a lot in expressing may see changes in body language like rubbing eyes, staring into space, avoiding eye contact, moving head and pressing lips together are some of the states which one depicts in different emotions.
  4. Movement of arms and leg: Movement of arms and legs make a visible change in a person. If a person is worried, he/she will continuously move her legs and arms.
  5. Wrinkles on forehead: Wrinkles on forehead are a clear sign that a person is angry at something. Or it may be a sign of doubtfulness. Wrinkles show anger, suspicion, doubt and a confused state.
  6. Clenching of fists: Clenching of fist shows that a person is in rage. It is an extreme form of anger. A major irritation make normal individual loses his/her temper and the individual may become angry and it results in clenching of fists. This is one of the external changes in the body associated with emotion.

Internal changes in body

Internal body changes play an important role in the body. There are a lot of changes that occur internally which change the physiology of the body. For example, increase in heart rate and breathing rate. Release of some hormones and changes in blood sugar level etc. Some of these

Changes have been described below:

  1. Increase in heart rate: Cortisol and adrenaline are released as they are the stress hormones and they make heartbeat faster and narrow the blood vessels so that the blood can be directed towards the center of heart. They also increase the sugar level and blood pressure.
  2. Change in neural activity: The autonomic system controls the physiological arousal through its parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions. It depends on the situation and the emotion that is perceived and then certain hormones are secreted. Empathetic system prepares the body for emergency situations while parasympathetic restores the body normal conditioning.
  3. Change in respiration: Respiration is one of the process altered by emotions. It increases when the body is under stress or maybe over excited with joy and maybe frightened. There are a lot of emotions which result in increase in respiration rate. However, people suffering from asthma or respiratory disorders my feel some problems.
  4. Change in pupil: Eyes are very expressive and they reflect changes during different emotional state. Open- eyed expressions are related o curiosity, frightening and shocking situations whereas, the narrow-eyed expressions relate to suspicion, doubt, disapproval etc.
  5. Secretion of hormones: There are several hormones that are secreted during different physiological arousal. For example, in happiness there is a release of total four hormones called endorphin, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. These hormones are collectively called happy hormones. They induce pleasure and happiness in a body and make people stay positive. Several other hormones are released depending on the mood and emotion. During stress period, adrenaline and cortisol are released.
  6. Changes in electrodermal activity (EDA): Electrical conductance of the skin changes which varies according with the moisture level. This change in the skin conductance can be measured by Galvanic Skin Response abbreviated as GSR. This change in skin sweat level can be used as an indication for physiological arousal.


There are certain emotions whose physiological responses match like the emotion of fear and excitement. there are many other emotions where the response is quite similar.

Everyday example:

  • A child may be excited for the first day of school and nervous too. In both cases, in excited state and nervous state, our heart beat quickly.
  • When we watch a scary movie, we will be afraid our respiration rate may increase and our heartbeat may also increase and similarly when we get some surprise our heart beat may also increase.


There are many emotions whose response are different like the body temperature may vary in different situations. We may turn red in rage and our body temperature increases and we may remain peaceful in certain situations and our body temperature is just normal.

Everyday example: In our everyday example, we may see different facial expressions during different emotional state. If we are scared our eyes will close even on a single movement of anything but if we are sad our eyes will be lowered and we may feel despondent. There is a lot of difference in the states of these two emotions.


Emotions can also be called as physiological arousal if there is no arousal there is no emotion. Emotions play different role in our body. There are many different types of emotions which we usually see and their functionality depend on the situation. Some emotion like happiness, excitement sparks a positivity in us and we feel fresh and happy even all the things around us seems good and they will become a source of pleasure. For example, if someone is not in a good mood and then all of a sudden one of the friends came then your face will glow and angry mood will perish and everything will be fine in place.

Some of the functions of the emotions are:

  • Emotions brings positivity
  • Emotions motivate us to responds.
  • They help us survive
  • They help in interactions
  • Emotions help us to understand others
  • Emotions help us in making quick decision
  • Through emotions, we can thrive.
  • The stressful conditions can be reflected through emotions.
  • Emotion prepare us for behavior.
  • Emotions help us understand the danger.


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  6. Cheng, A. (2019). The Physiology of Emotions [Blog]. Retrieved from
  7. Galvanic Skin Response – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Retrieved from
  8. Sadness. (2020). Retrieved from
  9. Cherry, K. (2020). The Important Role of Emotions. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from,lives%2C%20both%20large%20and%20small.&text=An%20expressive%20component%20(how%20you,in%20response%20to%20the%20emotion).
  10. Newman, T. (2018). Fear. Medical News Today. Retrieved from

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The Physiology Of Emotions. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
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