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Emotions Motivate Actions

Many clients find it helpful to recognize the range of actions that are motivated by different emotional states. This worksheet encourages clients to reflect upon their emotional world and the behaviors that emotional states motivate them to engage in.

There is a survival advantage in being able to recognise and act on physiological states such as hunger, thirst, or pain. Damasio and Carvalho (2013) argue that feelings are “mental experiences of body states” and the actions or drives that they (helpfully) motivate promote homeostasis. For example, if we are too warm we are motivated to ‘correct’ this by moving to somewhere shady. Or we can ‘correct’ hunger by eating food.

Psychological therapists commonly encounter clients whose actions to ‘correct’ feelings inadvertently lead to the maintenance of the client’s difficulties. Common examples include: phobic patients whose avoidance means they miss opportunities to learn that the phobic stimulus is benign; clients with OCD whose use of neutralizing strategies distracts from assumptions regarding the harmfulness of obsessions; or clients whose withdrawal from aversive activity inadvertently prolongs their depression. The problems that arise from emotion-driven activity are recognized in the DBT technique of opposite action / acting opposite to emotion (Linehan, 2004).

This Psychology Tools information handout was designed with a number of purposes:

  • To increase client’s emotional literacy
  • To help clients recognize the range of actions that are motivated by different emotional states
  • To impress upon readers that the actions guided by our emotions are not always in our long-term interests

Page 1 is a Psychology Tools information handout. Suggested uses include:

  • Client handout – use as a psychoeducation resource
  • Discussion point – use to provoke a discussion and explore client beliefs
  • Therapist learning tool – improve your familiarity with a psychological construct
  • Teaching resource – use as a learning tool during training

Page 2 takes the form of a quiz. Clinicians can use this to engage clients in a discussion about the purpose of different emotions, and the kinds of actions that they can elicit.

  • Damasio, A., & Carvalho, G. B. (2013). The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(2), 143.
  • Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual. Guilford Publications.

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