What’s The Difference Between Primary And Secondary Emotions?

Updated November 28, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The ability to feel emotions is part of what makes us human. Many people struggle to understand different emotional states they may experience and what causes them. Learning about the different types of emotions—including primary and secondary emotions—can help.

What Are Emotions, Exactly?

Emotions come from the Latin term emovere meaning “moving”. The term is a combination of the words “energy” and “motion”, which captures the often fleeting nature of human emotions. They typically occur when triggered by an internal thought, an external event, or a thought in response to an event. Emotions help us understand and interpret what we’re experiencing. 

Positive emotions are meant to encourage us to pursue the thought or situation that caused them again. That’s because these types of feelings activate the reward systems within the central nervous system, which helps us feel safe. Negative emotions, on the other hand, help warn us of potentially dangerous situations to avoid or be aware of in the future. Emotions helped humans stay safe enough to survive and evolve over time. While the world we live in today doesn’t have the same risks as the world of our ancestors, emotions can still help us make sense of our surroundings and defend ourselves.

It’s important to note that people may feel different emotions with different levels of intensity. Some level of variance in this is perfectly natural. For example, roughly 20% of humans fall into the category of “highly sensitive people”, which is “a trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment and to social stimuli”. In other words, some people may naturally feel some emotions with more or less intensity, which is not inherently problematic. 

In other cases, however, experiencing emotions outside of what’s considered to be a typical or healthy range may be a sign of an underlying condition. For instance, past trauma may cause a person to have difficulty feeling and expressing emotions or to feel and express emotions that are out of proportion to events—known as emotional dysregulation. In still other cases, a mental illness like depression may cause distorted thought patterns, which can contribute to a person experiencing strong emotions that are based on a warped view of reality. In these situations, a therapist may be able to help an individual build a healthier relationship to their emotions.

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Emotions Can Complicate Life

Primary Vs. Secondary Emotions

Human emotions are complex, and researchers don’t fully understand or agree on the details of where they come from or exactly how to classify them. That said, one of the more popular theories is known as the Plutchik Model of Emotions, in which psychologist Robert Plutchik posits that there are eight primary emotions that can be paired into polar opposites: joy and sadness, anger and fear, trust and distrust, and surprise and anticipation. According to this model, one of these eight always comes first, with any following emotions being classified as secondary. For example, getting into a minor car accident might make you feel fear as a primary emotion, with annoyance about the other driver’s actions or remorse about your own as secondary emotions. 

Typically, primary emotions are more transient than secondary emotions. They may also have an effect on body language and facial expressions, or may trigger other physiological responses. They usually reflect a more instinctive initial reaction, until our logical brain starts processing the event. Once cognition kicks into gear, the way you feel about something that happened may change. That’s where secondary emotions—which can be far more long-lasting—may come into play.

To tell if an emotion you’re feeling is primary or secondary, think about the timing. If it’s the first thing you feel in response to a stimulus such as an event or conversation, it’s likely a primary emotion—especially if it came on strongly and started fading shortly after. If an emotion lingers long after the event has happened, it’s likely to be secondary. If the emotion is complex and/or relates to past experiences, it’s almost always secondary.

Where Do Secondary Emotions Come From?

If primary emotions are typically instinctive, where do secondary emotions come from? The answer is that many of them are learned responses. Secondary emotions often refer to how you feel about the primary emotion you experienced, and we may face conflicting information on how we should relate to different primary emotions. These things may be instilled in us by our parents or caregivers, other role models, the media, etc. For example, you may have learned to feel shame or embarrassment as a secondary emotion after feeling anger or sadness. While these associations may be deep-seated, it may be possible to change them with effort and patience over time.

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How Understanding Your Emotions Can Be Useful

Distinguishing between primary and secondary emotions may help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your own emotional landscape. Understanding what triggers certain secondary emotions and how to work through them can be an insightful exercise. When secondary emotions cause us problems or interfere with our lives or relationships, it can be helpful to delve into their triggers and potentially address any wounds that may exist from past trauma or other negative experiences. Plus, understanding how your emotions work can help you become more aware of and gain more control over them, which can benefit your overall mental and social well-being.

Experiencing emotions is a perfectly normal and healthy part of the human experience. However, if you find that your emotional reactions are causing distress or problems in your life, a therapist may be able to help. They can work with you to identify the secondary emotions you’re feeling in response to certain stimuli and potentially discover the underlying causes. If wounds from past experiences are playing an outsize role in your reactions, they may be able to help you on the path to healing. 

If you feel more comfortable meeting with a therapist virtually, online therapy is one available treatment option. A platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist who you can speak with via phone call, video call, and/or chat to address the emotional challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that virtual therapy may be a viable alternative to in-person sessions, and many find it to be a more convenient and cost-effective option as well. Regardless of the treatment method or format you choose, getting in touch with your secondary emotions and their roots can help you feel more stable, healthy, and in control of your life.

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Emotions Can Complicate Life

Takeaway

Understanding the distinction between primary and secondary emotions can be the first step on the path toward creating a more balanced emotional life. If you’re looking for assistance or guidance on this journey, a mental health professional may serve as a helpful resource.

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