Emotional Awareness: Primary and Secondary Emotions

Emotional Awareness: Primary and Secondary Emotions

Emotions tell you what’s happening. They’re signals from your body that let you know when something good, bad, or neutral is occurring. Emotional signals are incredibly important in our lives, as they help us to remember people and situations, communicate, avoid pain, seek out pleasure, and cope with daily life stressors and joys. On a basic level, our emotions help us to survive — they tell us to enter “fight or flight” or “rest and digest” mode. We can learn a lot about our inner emotional worlds simply by paying attention to how we feel and not running away from difficult emotions. When you receive an emotional signal from your body, your initial reaction to this signal is called your primary emotion. Oftentimes, we have secondary emotions that occur in response to these primary emotions. Let’s unpack primary and secondary emotions so that you can increase your emotional awareness and understanding.

Primary Emotions: The First Reaction

Here’s an example of primary emotion. Let’s say you’re new to recovery and you’re about to go to your first meeting. You might start to feel butterflies in your stomach. Your reaction to this bodily sensation might be fear. You begin to feel afraid of the meeting, of learning new skills and meeting new people, and of recovery in general. Fear is the primary emotion here. Now, let’s move onto secondary emotions.

Secondary Emotions: The Reaction to the Reaction

As a reaction to your fear of going to the meeting, you might start to feel depressed about the idea of recovery or you might begin to feel remorse for things you’ve done in your past. Depression and remorse are the secondary emotions, as they are reactions to that first fearful feeling. Emotions can quickly overcome us because they build on each other. However, when we develop keen emotional awareness, we can be in the driver’s seat. We begin to feel less overwhelmed by our emotions.

Next time you’re in the grips of a difficult feeling, try to label your emotions as “primary” or “secondary.” Notice which feelings came first and which ones were reactions to the initial impulse. This simple step will start to strengthen your emotional awareness muscle.


Tree House Recovery of Orange County, California is a premiere men’s addiction treatment facility that uses eight different modalities to help our men become the best versions of themselves they can be. We teach our men that every day of their journey is something to celebrate and that recovery isn’t a sprint– it’s a marathon. To get started with Tree House Recovery, call us today at  (855) 202-2138.

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