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Embodied Emotion and Its Link to Emotional Arousal

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, we'll look at the definition of embodied emotion; the links between the autonomic nervous system, arousal, and performance; and how to distinguish emotions with similar physiological responses.

What is Embodied Emotion?

Roughly three-fourths of the population have some form of glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking. Many of us will be able to relate to the butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, and racing heart that often occur before speaking in front of a big group of people. This physiological, or bodily, response happens because we are feeling nervous, anxious, or scared.

Embodied emotion simply means that we feel emotions with our body. The scientific definition of embodied emotion is the physiological arousal that accompanies a certain feeling. So, the feeling of anxiety and fear that might accompany public speaking is expressed physiologically with responses in the body such as an uneasy stomach, sweating, and an increased heart rate. This physiological arousal is caused by the autonomic nervous system.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system which controls bodily functions we regulate unconsciously, such as breathing, digestion, blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, metabolism, and sexual response. We can thank the ANS for arousal and our physiological responses in embodied emotion. The goal of the ANS is to ensure that our body responds to the world appropriately and keeps us safe from harm.

Imagine you are walking to your car when you hear a noise behind you. You quickly turn your body and see a stray dog who begins growling. You are terrified. It is likely that your autonomic nervous system is going to speed up your heart rate. This is an adaptive response because it increases blood flow to your muscles and brain so that you can make a quick run to your car to avert danger.

The autonomic nervous system also controls other forms of arousal associated with embodied emotion. If the ANS receives a message that we are feeling sad while watching a movie, tears will fill our eyes and eventually might roll down our cheeks. This is our embodied emotion of sadness. The release of tears is also adaptive because it helps eliminate stress hormones and toxins from the body. The autonomic nervous system which caused this response has two subset systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system that stimulates and activates bodily functions in a fight or flight response. It is due to the sympathetic nervous system that our body sweats and our hearts race when we are scared. The parasympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system that calms down the body, bringing it back to it's baseline state. It is due to the parasympathetic nervous system that our body dries the sweat and our heart is brought back to it's normal rate.

Arousal and Performance

Brody is a college student and has an eight-page paper due tomorrow morning. He hasn't even started and plans on pulling an all-nighter. As the clock reaches the early hours of the morning, Brody is getting more and more stressed about the approaching deadline and unfinished paper. The topic is much more difficult to write about than he expected. Is Brody's stress helping or hindering his performance on this writing assignment?

Some arousal is helpful in that it motivates us to perform. After all, if Brody's deadline was a month from now, he probably wouldn't feel any stress to complete it and he probably wouldn't have the push and motivation to start writing. However, too much arousal can inhibit performance on a task. Brody's stress response and anxiety may inhibit cognition, making it more difficult for him to concentrate and complete the paper.

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