What Are Primary Emotions? Learn To Understand Your Instincts

What Are Primary Emotions? Learn To Understand Your Instincts

According to Charles Darwin, emotions are what keep us alive. They protect us from danger, prompt us to respond to events around us, and enable us to develop meaningful relationships.

Have you ever felt an emotion so strong that your entire body and mind were taken over by it? These are known as primary emotions, and understanding why they arise is essential to having control over them.

Additionally, there are secondary emotions are directly connected to one of the primary emotions, these can be quite complex to understand and deconstruct.

Discover how to tell the difference between primary and secondary emotions and learn more about the complexities of each.

What Are Primary And Secondary Emotions?


Psychology recognizes two different kinds of emotions: primary and secondary.

Primary Emotion

Our primary emotions are a direct result of experience. They’re powerful and overwhelming but often don’t last very long.

Secondary Emotion

Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are more subtle and complex.

Before we dive into the secondary emotions, let’s take a look at the 8 primary emotions from which all secondary emotions are derived.

What Are The Primary Emotions?


Experts have developed a variety of theories on emotion, but the most widely accepted theory outlines eight different primary emotions.

What Are The Basic Primary Emotions?

The eight primary emotions list includes:

  1. Anger
  2. Fear
  3. Happiness
  4. Surprise
  5. Sadness
  6. Disgust
  7. Interest
  8. Shame 

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of each primary emotion in greater detail.

Anger Definition

Anger is among the most powerful emotions you can feel. It’s strong, explosive, and often hard to control. By definition, it’s a powerful feeling of antagonism and displeasure.

The tricky thing about anger is that it has many layers.

It can range from a mild annoyance to rage, and the consequences may be severe if it’s not dealt with properly. It can damage your relationships and cause problems in both your personal and professional life.

On the other hand, anger can be very constructive. It helps us get unstuck and motivates us to push forward when we’re not pleased with our life.

Fear Definition

Fear is one of the most important emotions for survival. It’s defined as an unpleasant feeling that stems from perceived danger or threat.

When we’re afraid, our brain goes into fight or flight mode. Our senses sharpen, and we might tremble as our heart rate increases.

Of course, everyone responds to danger in a different way, and the degree of fear that a person feels can depend on a variety of factors.

Even though fear is an emotion we couldn’t live without, keeping it under control is very important.

Happiness Definition

Happiness is the most sought-after primary emotion. Even though people experience happiness for different reasons, this emotion is defined as a pleasant feeling of contentment, well-being, and joy.

Today, psychology focuses heavily on helping people find happiness, which wasn’t the case up until around 50 years ago.

However, there’s a strong relationship between physical and emotional health, so in order to be happy, you need to take care of both your body and mind.

Surprise Definition

Surprise is a brief moment of shock that happens after an unexpected event. It’s often quite strong can be both positive or negative. Research shows that people tend to remember surprises for a long time, as they stand out from everyday situations.

Surprise can trigger the same response as fear. In a moment of shock, people’s fight or flight responses can be triggered.

Sadness Definition

Sadness is something that everyone experiences. It’s defined as a transient state of hopelessness, grief, or disappointment. If it happens too often, it can become a chronic state of depression.

Its intensity and duration vary according to the root cause, as well as people’s individual traits. It also makes people engage in different coping mechanisms, some of which are unhealthy, so it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Learning constructive coping mechanisms is the key to overcoming long-term grief or sadness.

Disgust Definition

From an evolutionary perspective, disgust developed as a way of helping people learn the difference between edible and poisonous foods. Today, it’s defined as a feeling of revulsion caused by something offensive and unpleasant.

It can be both physical and mental, as it can result in strong bodily sensations and severe emotional imbalance.

Interest Definition

Interest is what makes us motivated to move forward and experience different things. It’s defined as wanting to understand or get to know someone or something. It’s an essential emotion for developing meaningful relationships and enriching our life experiences.

Interest is triggered by events that we find mysterious and worth exploring. It’s strongly linked with curiosity and should be nurtured throughout a person’s life.

Shame Definition

Shame is a very strong feeling of distress or humiliation that arises from wrong behaviors or shortcomings. Some people might be temporarily ashamed because of their actions, while others may suffer a lifetime of shame from a belief that they lack something that everyone around them has.

It’s a powerful emotion that can put a strain on our overall well-being, and it should be dealt with in a healthy way.

Accept Your Emotions

As is the case with most things in life, the key to emotional well-being is balance.

Embrace positive emotions, but try not to push away negative emotions.

The key to emotional balance is in learning to be aware of what you feel and in developing effective coping mechanisms.

What Are Secondary Emotions?


While primary emotions are easy to understand, it’s our secondary emotions that are truly complex.

In essence, secondary emotions are a blend of two or more primary emotions. Although not as strong, they tend to last for much longer than primary emotions, and they may have a bigger impact on your well-being.

There are many ways that secondary emotions can take form. For example, they might be a result of events from the past. Even though the event that triggered a primary emotion might be far behind you, your emotional memory may trigger similar emotions when similar events happen.

Secondary emotions can also arise from the anticipation of your future.

What Are Some Examples Of Secondary Emotions?

Here are some examples of secondary emotions – boredom, serenity, interest, rage, annoyance, ecstasy, amazement.

More often than not, you can feel primary and secondary emotions at the same time. This adds to their complexity, which can make secondary emotions quite confusing.

Is Anxiety A Secondary Emotion?

Not only is anxiety a secondary emotion, but it’s among the most common. In essence, it has the role of masking other emotions that people aren’t able to understand or express. Some anxiety is completely normal, perhaps attributable to the stress of modern life.

However, if not dealt with, it can turn into a disorder that might negatively affect your quality of life in the long run.

The most effective way of dealing with anxiety is by letting the underlying emotions surface. This is easier said than done, but with the helped of a trained professional, those combating anxiety can learn to process their underlying emotions with skill and care.

Be An Emotional Master

Now that you have an understanding of how secondary emotions arise, it might be a good time to perform a mental self-check.

Sit by yourself and try to focus on the emotions you’re feeling. Give them a name, and think of the reason why they might be there.

Studies have shown that humans are almost always feeling at least one emotion. Everything in your life is deeply emotional, even if you aren’t aware of it. This is why putting some time and effort into understanding your emotions can be a worthy investment.

It can bring you closer to learning how to fill your life with positive emotions. And this is most definitely a path worth pursuing.


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Written by
Irina Yugay