• Jessica Dattalo, LCSW

Science and Emotions



Emotions can be scary, wonderful, and painful experiences. Sometimes all at the same time. Emotions are what bring our life meaning. You might feel overwhelmed by your emotions. You might try to avoid experiencing them at all costs. Maybe you’ve learned to trust your emotions and allowed them to guide you. Regardless of your relationship with them, have you ever paused to think about the science behind them? Why do they exist? Do the skills taught actually help? I once heard psychotherapy described as the unique balance between science and art. As a psychotherapist, here is my interpretation of some valuable scientific findings that I’ve witnessed significantly help clients feel better and reach their treatment goals.


The Function of Tears: Our eyes tear up for a variety of reasons. From cutting an onion to lubricating dryness to emotional tears of joy or painfully bawling our eyes out, there are a lot of reasons why our eyes expel this liquid. What’s interesting is that it has been found that the difference between these tears is that they are actually composed of different chemicals. When studied under a microscope, it has been found that “emotional tears” include hormones and enzymes that are natural pain killers. This idea proposes that when we allow ourselves to cry our bodies may inherently be trying to provide us an internal system of stress relief and pain reduction. The tears are our body's way of finding balance and equilibrium. Even more, interestingly, a photographer named Rose Lynn Fischer explored her own tears under a microscope, finding that every tear had its very own make up. She writes “Every tear that I looked at under the microscope had its own qualities, its own sort of ‘signature’ whether it was from the same emotion or different emotions.” This finding suggests that the body knows how to expel these particles in the exact way we need, which is why, sometimes, crying may feel like such a therapeutic relief.


For reference: https://www.rose-lynnfisher.com/tears.html


Duration of Emotions: Sometimes it feels like painful emotions will last forever. It may seem intolerable and never-ending. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “this too shall pass”. According to neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, this is absolutely true. She discovered that emotions last only 90 seconds. You read that right. 1.5 minutes! The idea here is that it is the judgments that we place on our emotions that either change or continue that emotional experience. For example, perhaps a friend didn’t text you back. The initial emotion might be sadness. If you tell yourself that you’re stupid for feeling sad, it will likely add to more sadness, and now with a dose of shame. If you then tell yourself that you’re stupid and that’s not just why your friend doesn’t want to text you back, but why everyone hates you and you’re a failure, well that is creating one big spiral of sadness, shame, and loneliness adding on many 90 second intervals of that unpleasant emotion. If we can accept our emotions as they are without judgment (i.e. “I’m feeling sad, and that’s okay”), then we may only have 90 seconds of the emotion to endure.


It should be noted that grief is not an emotion, yet rather a process composed of many different emotions. Tiredness or hunger are not emotions, but rather physiological sensations. Of course, this research is just a small piece of the puzzle with its own limitations and need for further exploration. No lab work can embody the true essence of the human experience. And still, if either of these studies resonates with you and helps you better understand yourself and feel less critical of your emotions, then why not consider them?


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