What are emotions?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on our lives, forcing us to face challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and stimulate strong emotions in us.

From constant changes in the way we experience life outside our homes, to never knowing if we will need to isolate for 10 days after exposure to someone with COVID-19, being aware of our emotions has become increasingly important. 

“An emotion is defined as a complex psychological state that involves three components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioural or expressive response.”1

The physiological response—the physical experience of an emotion like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, sweaty hands or heat in the face—has been scientifically proven to last no more than 90 seconds. This is surprisingly short considering how our emotions can impact and influence our thoughts and our lives and persist for a long time.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher

Link between emotion and behaviour

With Lao Tzu’s quote in mind, is there anything we can do to look after our emotional health and ultimately, our character and our destiny?

The answer is: “Yes, there is much we can do.” The first step is to become aware of and able to name our emotions.2

Emotions are natural and unavoidable—it’s what we do with them that counts. People can find it difficult to recognise and name the emotion they are feeling.

How do we manage our emotions?

So, we’ve identified and named the emotion. Now what?

One quick and easy technique that can help is the S-T-O-P acronym.3

‘S’ stands for ‘stop’. You notice that your emotions are spiralling; you stop what you are doing.

‘T’ stands for ‘take a breath’. You notice your breathing and start to breathe consciously. This means you notice that you breathe in and you notice that you breathe out. This anchors you to the present moment and brings you from an emotional state to a more centred one.

‘O’ stands for ‘observe’. With the perspective from the previous two steps, you can observe the situation almost as if you were a third party. This gives you some space to respond.

P’ stands for ‘proceed’. Proceed in the way that feels best for you—and hopefully with a little more perspective than before.

Another helpful perspective is to view our emotions as data, even the emotions traditionally regarded as negative. This can help us to better understand ourselves and communicate with others. When you experience an emotion, try to ask yourself what the message is and what positive action you can take. 

Emotional well-being and physical well-being

Guy Winch highlights how we take the time to look after our physical health. For example, we have been taught to brush our teeth twice a day. We are not taught about managing our mental health. Mental health is not visible so it is that much more difficult to recognise and take seriously. Difficult situations happen in life, but it is how we respond that matters. Build your emotional toolkit just as you would your physical health. Check in with yourself—often.4


Emotional First Aid (17.12)


Practice Emotional First Aid


Watch the video clip and identify a tool that can support you when failure, rejection, loneliness or negative thoughts take hold.

Emotions in 3D: “Inside Out”

Pixar’s film “Inside Out” personifies five major emotions—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust—residing in the mind of a pre-teen girl named Riley. Although marketed as a children’s animated film, the psychology of emotions relates to all of us.

Nelson Mandela talks about two opposing emotions of love and hate in this famous quote:

“People must learn to hate, and if they learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

If you are using the Achieve Careers LO Programme, the following information is recommended to support the facilitation of these topics:

  • GR 8 LO Manual, Section 4, pp. 56–57
  • GR 9 LO Manual, Section 3
  • GR 11 LO Manual, Section 2, pp. 27–29
  • GR 12 LO manual, Section 2, pp. 27–33 & p. 41
  • Teacher’s Flash Drive – folder on Emotional Intelligence
  • Teacher’s Flash Drive – folder on Mental Health

Community Collab

Achieve Careers runs a partnership project with underprivileged schools and educational organisations. Our partnership project entails the distribution of unused LO manuals donated by schools, and collaboration with LO teachers who bring the content alive in these underprivileged schools. If your school has any old stock that they would consider donating back to us for this initiative, please get in touch with info@achievecareers.co.za.

1Hockenbury, D. and Hockenbury, S.E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

2The New York Times. The Importance of Naming Your Emotions, [Online],
Available: bit.ly/EmotionNaming [21 Jun 2021].

3Phang, C.K., Keng, S.L. & Chiang, K.C. (2014) ‘MindfulS.T.O.P.: Mindfulness Made Easy for Stress Reduction in Medical Students’, ResearchGate, [Electronic]
Available: bit.ly/EasyMindfulSTOP [21 Jun 2021].

4TED. (2015) How To Practice Emotional First Aid | Guy Winch
Available: bit.ly/FirstAidEmotional [22 Jun 2021].

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