Secondary Emotions and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

young woman in therapy
sturti / Getty Images

What is the definition of secondary emotions? Find out what these emotions are and why people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems are vulnerable to them.


Secondary emotions are emotional reactions we have to other emotions. For example, a person may feel ashamed as a result of becoming anxious or sad. In this case, anxiety would be the primary emotion while shame would be the secondary emotion.

Secondary emotions are often caused by the beliefs we have about experiencing certain emotions. Some people may believe that being anxious or sad is a sign of weakness or says something negative about them as people. Therefore, whenever these emotions are experienced, these thoughts come up, which trigger secondary emotions.

Because people with PTSD often experience uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, anger, or fear, they're particularly at risk of experiencing secondary emotions.

Changing One's Beliefs About Emotions

Since secondary emotions are often rooted in one's belief system, changing one's beliefs can help alleviate secondary emotions. A number of individuals grow up hearing that boys don't cry or girls don't get angry.

Race may also play a role in how certain emotions are perceived. A Black man may have grown up hearing that he shouldn't get angry, lest he scare people. An Asian American woman may be expected to behave in a passive way due to racial stereotypes about her race and gender collectively. As a result, these individuals may feel uncomfortable experiencing so-called taboo emotions and beat themselves up when they do. Therapy may help such people.

How Therapy Can Help

In therapy, patients can learn to simply feel their feelings without judgment. They can be taught that no feeling or emotion is a bad emotion. They can also be taught the value of all emotions, even ones that might make them uncomfortable, such as anger or sadness. Moreover, a therapist can point out the negative consequences that arise when people try to keep emotions at bay, such as turning to drugs, alcohol or food to self-medicate.

In therapy, people with PTSD and other mental health conditions may also learn healthy ways to cope with emotions that make them uncomfortable. They may be encouraged to exercise, eat well, journal, meditate, sleep adequately, and strengthen their emotional support system. By practicing mindfulness techniques, one can learn to simply observe their thoughts and emotions and be aware that such feelings will pass.

If you have PTSD or another mental health diagnosis and feel overwhelmed by secondary emotions, it's important to get help. Trying to avoid such feelings or self-medicating to numb them can lead to self-destructive habits and behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

In a society that has long valued silent, strong types who weather storms without a hitch, it can be easy to believe that you've fallen short of feeling emotions that society says makes one weak. In reality, you haven't fallen short; you're simply human. Fear, anger, and sadness have long been part of the human experience and always will be. 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Braniecka A, Trzebińska E, Dowgiert A, Wytykowska A. Mixed emotions and coping: the benefits of secondary emotions. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(8):e103940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103940 

  2. Bonilla-Silva E. Feeling Race: Theorizing the Racial Economy of Emotions. American Sociological Review. 2019;84(1):1-25. doi:10.1177%2F0003122418816958

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.