The Underbelly of Crisis:  

Sometimes in our lives, we are caught in an emotional web trying to discern the accuracy, or the quality of our feelings.  This is even more prevalent when we are in the middle of a crisis.  Conflict at home and in our relationships are one common example.  On a much bigger scale, the COVID-19 pandemic is another.  These can be times when people have a suite of emotions from angry, and confused too scared and sad, even for some joyful and excited.  

What’s not uncommon, is our ability to confidently state our emotional position during the acute part of a crisis, only to realise later we were feeling something else entirely.

Confusing?  You betcha.  And familiar.  It’s very normal for us to lead with some emotions, hide some away and forget some altogether.  This strategy is at its essence about ‘surviving’, and is an adaptive process to our day to day life circumstances, upbringings and overall emotional intelligence.  There is a way through the soup though, and deciphering our emotional cauldron is easier when we recognise and understand the difference between primary and secondary emotions. 

Primary Emotions:

Simply put, primary emotions are the very first feeling’s we have in response to a situation, and are we are hard wired from birth to recognise and respond to them.   Many studies (like that of Paul Eckman) identified 6 x basic emotions that all humans have.  They include Surprise, Disgust (think foraging, berries and poison) Joy, Sadness, Fear (perhaps the most powerful of the basic emotions) and Anger (this is the anger of protection and assertiveness),  The research has continued on to include shame, embarrassment and excitement.

Primary emotions are something we are looking out for all the time in our connection with others.  We do this through studying faces.  Unconsciously and very quickly, we scan for micro-facial expressions (check them out on YouTube!) that support our understanding of someones emotion world.  We use this information (along with one’s tone of voice and body posturing) to interpret signs of safety and threat.  For example, If someone’s facial expression isn’t matching their words, we will default to what we perceive the facial expressions are telling us; probably feeling a little (or a lot) distrusting.  Usually, these non-verbal cue’s are expressed long before any words are spoken.  What a classic to hear in relationships, from one partner to the other, “Whats wrong?” or “I know something is going on?”.  Our use of text messaging is another easy way to exemplify misunderstanding that can happen without the ‘data’ of facial expressions.   And I have certainly noticed during COVID, that mask wearing evokes in me, much more conscious eye-gazing and attention to body posturing than usual.

Often, our primary emotions act in composites.  For example, I would suggest ‘hurt’ is a composite of fear, surprise and sadness. Perhaps ‘love’ could be a composite of all of them?  Fundamentally though, primary emotions are considered to drive connection.  They invite intimacy and closeness.  Even primary anger, which in its healthy form promotes assertiveness and boundary setting, is essential in functional relationships.

Secondary Emotions:

Maybe now, you already have a sense of what ‘secondary’ emotions are all about?  In a nutshell, they are the second emotional response we have to a primary emotion.   Or, in other words, secondary emotions can often cover up our primary emotional experiences.  That’s important to understand, as more often than not, secondary emotions are ’maladaptive’.   Like when we cover up a primary emotion of sadness with a secondary emotion of anger.

This anger -v- sad example is a great one and such a common relational experience.  In my work, secondary emotions of anger (“im just so frustrated”) are the number one presentation for couples who are ultimately sad and fearful.  Some other typical secondary emotions are feelings of anxiety, worry, irritation, aggression, rage and emptiness.  

The reason that secondary emotions usually aren’t helpful is that they drive disconnection and uncertainty.  In covering up our primary emotions we send confusing signals to the outside world about our needs. For example, if you are sad and need support and closeness, signalling secondary anger will tell others that they should stay away and thus create distance.

It’s important to mention that there can be important reasons to develop secondary emotion strategies. Clearly, people who are traumatised are unlikely to have had enough experiences that allow an easy access to primary emotions and this can be debilitating and complex in their lives, and for those around them.  

How Knowing About Emotions Help?

Recognising, resourcing and regulating around primary and secondary emotions can drive forward well-being, and connection.  There are a few simples steps we can do every day to support our emotional experience during a crisis:

Describe to yourself what you notice:  For example what body sensations do you have?  doing so non-judgementally and with kindness is essential.

Take a few Belly Breaths:  3- 5 Breaths can make all the difference when feeling and moving emotions

Now Describe to yourself what you feel?:  What emotion is this? Is it primary or secondary? What am I thinking about or what’s happening that’s causing this?

Expand On Your Feeling?  What else am I feeing? What else do I notice in my body?

Choose to share and how?  Is it okay to share this feeling with someone? How can I express this feeling as a primary emotion? Resist the urge to react from secondary emotions when possible.

Allow the emotion to pass:  Practice letting your feeling come and go without engaging in them can be really helpful when dissolving difficult secondary emotions

Keep Belly Breathing!

(adopted from This Way Up Wellbeing)

Perhaps now – more than ever – in a world gone topsy turvy, a goal for our humanity is too deeply consider the emotional underbelly of crisis, and how does this create division or connection between us.

Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby.  You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at or