Core emotions refer to emotional responses when we do not try to block, mask, mute or distort them. Hilary Jacobs Hendel describes core emotions as physical sensations that we recognise and name an as emotion. They give us information about our environment such as whether I am safe or in danger and what I need or want. They are wired into the middle part of the brain and are not under conscious control. When triggered they create a physiological response that primes us for a particular action that supports survival like fleeing when feeling fear. Core emotions give us information that helps us thrive. The core emotions are: Sadness, anger, fear, joy, excitement, disgust, sexual excitement and joy. However, problems arise when these emotions are blocked or excluded from awareness.

Adaptive core emotions have a sense of movement that can be compared to a wave. These emotions rise, peak and dissipate like waves in the ocean. If the emotion is allowed to follow its natural course, it often lasts no longer than 90 seconds.

Inhibitory emotions as emotions that block core emotions. These are shame, guilt and anxiety. Inhibitory emotions arise when core emotions are in conflict with what we perceive pleases others on whom we depend like parents, partners etc. Inhibitory emotions also arise when core emotions become too intense and the brain shuts them down to protect us from being overwhelmed.

Hendel describes defences as anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. Depression is a defence because in that state we are disconnected from our core emotions. Defences are potentially infinite but commonly take the form of denial, distraction, addictive behaviours, aggression, criticising, procrastination and humour.

When you notice that you are dysregulated, distressed, off balance etc. you can use the ‘change triangle’ to work through it. Start by:

  • Figure out where you are on the change triangle whether in defence, inhibitory or core emotions. This gives distance and perspective from the emotion you are in.
  • Then, pause, breathe and calm yourself for a few moments
  • Try to name the core emotions that are coming up
  • Listen to what the emotion is telling you
  • Think through the best way to proceed