Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Wave metaphor for emotion

The wave metaphor for emotion:
In what respects is an ocean wave a helpful metaphor for understanding human emotions?


Figure 1. Range of Emotions

The wave metaphor for emotions is a way to conceptualise emotions in a physical way. By viewing these neurological and physiological processes as a physical wave that they can see it can help to gain control and perspective and take hold of the emotion before the emotion takes hold of you[grammar?]. This physical manifestation is a vital tool to aid in emotion regulation in everyday life

The wave metaphor for emotion discusses the representation of the inner movement that emotions create. The changes and affects emotions can cause within a person's mind can range from light, positive, happy and calm on one end of the spectrum to negative, anger, heavy and depressing.

Emotions have the potential to arise suddenly from both external and internal stimuli. Emotions can be uncontrollable and unpreventable without proper guidance on how to experience emotions in a beneficial way.

The wave metaphor for emotion has also referred to as "riding the wave", highlighting the many different interpretations of this metaphor and how it can be modified and adapted to fit different peoples[grammar?] needs (Greenwald, 2021).

Case Study

Sophie has problems regulating her emotions which was causing her distress. She started seeing a Dialectical Behavioural Therapist to help her gain better control of her emotions. Instead of pushing the emotion away or reacting in the heat of the moment, Sophie was taught to visualise riding her emotions as if she was a surfer, remembering that the emotions she feels will only be temporary and will pass.

Figure 2. A surfer riding an intense wave
Figure 3. A surfer peacefully riding a calm wave

When a surfer is challenged by harsh and troubling waves they do not try to surf against the waves, going against the ocean. Alternatively they choose to move with the wave, catching the natural flow the waves come in from the tide. Emotions are very similar to waves in this sense. People often attempt to fight against feeling strong negative emotions which can lead to long-term disadvantages and complications.

In Sophies[grammar?] case when she became overwhelmed and frustrated with her situation in an attempt to delay and deny her emotions she would start impulse online shopping which then lead to financial strain and continued the cycle. Now when Sophie feels these emotions, she accepts the emotion and lets the experience wash over her, recognising what she is feeling yet understanding the emotion is temporary and not all of who she is.

Focus questions:

  • What is the wave metaphor?
  • What are emotions?
  • How can the wave metaphor be used with psychological theories?


This section describes all of the different categories of emotion and how emotion interacts with the wave metaphor for emotion.

What are emotions?Edit

Emotions are "a complex reaction pattern, involving experimental, behavioural and physiological elements". Emotions are individual processss[spelling?] of dealing with stimuli and situations which hold personal significance. Emotions are split into three categories: a subjective experience, physiological response and a behavioural or expressive response (Imotions, 2015).

What are the differences between emotions, feelings, and moods?Edit

Feelings occur from emotional experiences. This happens as a conscious experience, developing from an emotion. Feelings can be influenced by memories, beliefs and other factors. Feelings are categorised in the same classification as hunger or pain.

Mood is described as "any short-lived emotional state, usually of low intensity" . Moods lack stimuli and show no clear starting point which makes them different from emotions.

What are the purpose of emotions?Edit

Emotions are an integrated part of life and human beings, additionally they also serve three different types of functions. Experiencing all own [say what?] the range of emotions is important both the positive and negative emotions Within the purpose of emotions there is seen to be three kinds of functions in which emotions serve (Walinga et al., 2019):

Interpersonal functions of emotionEdit

The interpersonal function of emotion occurs externally and is used to communicate with people around us, sharing our needs, desires and dislikes through the use of facial expressions, words, body posture and more (Walinga et al., 2019).

Intrapersonal functions of emotionEdit

The Intrapersonal function of emotion describes what happens within a person, both physiologically and psychologically in their body and minds (Hwang & Matsumoto, 2022).

Social and cultural functions of emotionEdit

The role of social and cultural function of emotion is to use emotions to help maintain the productiveness and cohesion of society and Culture (Hwang & Matsumoto, 2022).

How are emotions and waves alike?Edit

Both emotions and waves have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Waves emerge small from far away and travel long distances over the ocean, getting bigger as time moves on. This is similar to emotions in the sense that emotions can be triggered from all sorts of different trigger locations and events, and the longer the emotion dwells, the bigger they can become.

Emotions have rhythm and flow similar to waves. Tidal waves and emotions can be overwhelming at first from the size and intensity however, both will recede and ease. It has been found that people process and accept emotions within 90 seconds (Delgado, 2022). Emotions that are held onto both positive and negative are by choice (Delgado, 2022).

Another comparison for waves and emotions is they can't be stopped. People are unable to control how they feel in situations, they aren't controllable (Delgado, 2022). When feelings arise people aren't able to stop them but what happens next is controllable. People can learn to manage, process and accept feelings to cope in healthier ways. This allows people to take control over their reactions to emotions instead of resisting and suppressing negative emotions. Emotions and waves both need to be rode, by riding the wave, people can take control of their emotions opposed to them overwhelming the people feeling them.

Does the metaphor apply to both negative and positive emotions?Edit

The wave metaphor is applicable to both positive and negative emotions. The analogy is often used to describe negative emotions as they are usually the overwhelming emotions people to struggle to deal with. Positive emotions can be strongly felt if people allow them to be. Fascination, motivated, appreciated, safe and so many more emotions fall under the category of positive emotions. People often dwell on the negative emotions and remember those feelings but let the positive emotions fade away (Delgado, 2022). Viewing positive emotions through the wave metaphor allows people to enjoy the emotion, flowing over them similar to a wave flowing over us.

Steps to "riding the wave" of emotionEdit

  1. Awareness and acknowledgment of the emotion
  2. Experience the emotion
  3. Understand this emotion is only one part of you
  4. Accept the emotion as it is without categorising it

Emotional intelligenceEdit

Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient refers to the ability to regulate and identify a person's own emotions and those of others. People with high emotional intelligence build greater relationships, have higher job satisfaction and regulate their emotions with better speed and understanding (2019).

Being able to identify and regulate a person's own emotions is one of the foundations of being emotionally intellegent and possessing useful tools in order to do this. The wave metaphor for emotion can be used to boost levels of emotional intelligence, by being able to process a person's emotions and accurately respond to the emotional needs of other people.


This section describes the origins in which the wave metaphor for emotion was founded and the differences culture plays in understanding the metaphor.


Figure 4.The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai

The wave metaphor for emotions dates back to 'The Great Wave' published in 1831 by Katsushika Hokusai. The Great Wave was part of a 36 views of Mt. Fuji series, the art was used to describe a natural disaster of Mt. Fuji's slopes causes by heavy rainfall. This is one of the many interpretations the painting inspired being used to represent deep emotional experiences such as fear, helplessness and nationalism. The grave wave also referred to as the wave metaphor is now used to describe the everyday emotional experience of reacting to stimulus, feeling the emotion and the actions taken after the feeling.

Cultural implications and differencesEdit

Culture is used to define the encompassing atmosphere which people live life. Arts, music, fashion, traditions, beliefs and institutions all contribute to creating culture. Each culture has their own set of rules, customs and values which shapes how people feel, act and think.

Throughout culture, there are concepts which are cross cultural and universal but then become culturally specific based on their own values and beliefs. Emotion is a universal concept with general meaning across cultures. There are seven basic emotions; happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, contempt and disgust. There are also general themes which trigger each emotion and correlating facial expressions of the universal emotions. From these universal principles, the semantics then become culturally specific. Social guidelines and etiquette of when, where and how to express and display emotions. The attitudes viewed and the language used and what events evoke emotional responses. Culture influences peoples emotional experiences by determining if the person can relate feelings to the event, shaping the emotional experience.

The wave metaphor for emotions in principal is a universal concept, that it can be understood beyond cultural bounds but the relation and specific meaning can be interpreted differently. There are some distinct differences in culture between western and eastern cultures and the way they view emotion. Western cultures is very individualistic and high emotion arousal centred where as eastern culture is collectivist focused with importance on low arousal emotions. These differences often[spelling?] insight to the potential different understanding of the wave metaphor. Western culture uses the wave metaphor to describe high intensity emotions with big waves. Eastern culture utilises the wave metaphor for low intensity emotions with many little waves with small peaks. (Lim, N. 2016).


This section describes the different psychological theories of emotion and how they interact and utilise the benefits of the wave metaphor for emotion

Evolutionary theory of emotionEdit

The evolutionary theory of emotion focuses on emotions as an adaptive problem solving phenomena. The theory is traditionally based on a selection of emotions which carry particular universal signals, universally identified and observable in other primates. This theory originated in the 1870s, by Charles Darwin, with an interest in facial expressions, believing they were innate in nature and hard-wired. Darwin saw facial expressions as an act which allows people to quickly judge a person's emotions and understand and communicate intentions. Darwin concluded that emotions evolved to secure human and animal survival. The desire to be loved and receive affection encourages people to seek partners and reproduce, continuing the human survival. Whereas fear forces people to react to the source of danger approaching them leading to either fight or flight. These responses to environmental stimuli are driven by emotion to react appropriately and raise their odds of surviving and succeeding. People who are able to correctly interpret and respond to emotions have a greater likelihood of success, survival and safety, both physically and emotionally. People and animals will exhibit body language to express their emotions and possessing the ability to recognise them is an evolutionary example of adaptive emotions (Cherry, 2022).

The James-Lange Theory of EmotionEdit

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion, theorised in the 1880s, considered the notion that bodily changes which is followed by the formation of an emotional experience based on the bodily reaction. James-Lange believed that emotions were caused by bodily sensations. For instance when a person smiles, they become happy or when a person experiences their heart rate increase they become afraid. This process works through stimulating events which trigger physical reactions. The physical reaction is allocated to a corresponding emotion.

This theory of emotion can be linked to the wave metaphor as the stimulating event as the start of the wave. The physical reaction represents the peak of the wave and the emotional reaction is how the person chooses to process their emotion, either fighting or riding the wave.

Cognitive appraisal theoryEdit

Cognitive appraisal theory describes the act of a person processing and analysing an evoking event which prompts a bodily reaction to the event. According to James-Lange, cognitive appraisals can happen consciously or subconsciously discussed by Schachter-Singer. It was commonly found amongst cognitive appraisal theorists that people experiencing the same evoking event would experience differing emotions. These findings imply that people can comprehend evoking events in differing reactions which causes ranging emotional experiences.

There are currently two perspectives of cognitive appraisal theory used to account for the interaction between emotions and cognitive appraisals. The first perspective views that the cognitive appraisals cause the emotion. This perspective implies that the manner a person interprets the evoking event shapes which emotion is produced. The different cognitive appraisals people make allow people to intepret evoking events differently and feel different emotions as a result. The emotions people feel from the evoking event describes peoples differing viewpoints on the same situations.

The second perspective of cognitive appraisal theories follows the opposite sequence, believing that the emotion is comes first and causes the appraisal. The person feels the emotion after experiencing physiological and behaviour changes.

Through analysis of this theory in conjunction with the wave metaphor it can be seen that a person will be in an evoking situation, the start of the wave, the appraisal of the event is the peak of the wave and the emotion being felt is the flow and crash of the wave.

Cannon-Bard TheoryEdit

This psychological theory also referred to as the thalamic theory of emotion, takes a biological perspective, believing that physiological and emotional experiences occur together and separately. As a person feels an emotion, they will also experience a physiological reaction such as increased heart rate, shaking voice and sweating. The Cannon-Bard theory states that emotions are the result of the thalamus sending messages to the brain as a response to the presenting stimulus, prompting a physiological reaction.

The amygdala receives a signal from the thalamus when an event occurs. The automatic nervous system also receives a signal from the thalamus which causes the physical reaction to occur. This theory applies to both positive and negative emotions in any situation where a person experiences an emotional reaction.

The Cannon-Bard theory and the wave metaphor for emotion are similar in process as they both happen simultaneously and continuously. People feel emotions instantly when presented with an evoking situation, rising and falling with intensity in the same nature a wave flows.

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)Edit

Dialectical behaviour therapy is a subtype of talk therapy derived from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which had been modified to help people who feel emotions at intense and high rates or have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

The aim of DBT is to help people understand and accept peoples concerning feelings. In order to do this DBT teaches peoples[grammar?] skills which are implemented to manage their emotions and utilise the skills to change their lives with positivity. DBT teaches their patients to distress tolerance, regulate emotion, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness.

Within DBT patients are taught to optimise the use of the wave metaphor as a visual aid for coping with their intense emotions they perceive as uncontrollable[factual?]. Instead of letting their emotions consume them or act in rash decisions they experience the emotion as if a wave is washing over them, understanding that fighting the emotion will only worsen the damage and delay the healing process[grammar?][factual?].

Practical capabilitiesEdit

This section discusses the practical capabilities of using the wave metaphor for emotion to benefit people in everyday life and its links to other psychological processes.

Fight or flightEdit

Figure 5.Fight or Flight response diagram describing the kinds of physical effects it can cause

Fight or flight is a physiological response which happens automatically as a response to any event that a person finds threatening or alarming. The sympathetic nervous system is alerted by the idea of danger and the body prepares to react in either fight or flight as an acute stress response. This bodily reaction to perceived threats are evolutionary survival preservation mechanisms to increase the likelihood of surviving the situation.

Fight or flight is a useful survival technique but when used in unnecessary and excessive states, this coping mechanism has been correlated with a variety of anxiety disorders and other clinical conditions[factual?]. An important aspect of treatment for anxiety is an elevated knowledge of the physiological need for fight and flight and the consequences of excessive use of the response.

People who understand how to control this response have better understanding and control over their emotions and possess the ability to ride the wave of their emotions instead of letting the emotion take over and cause unneeded fight or flight responses (Psychology Tools, 2022). By viewing the emotion they are feeling as an ocean wave they are able to stop the fight or flight response from occurring and gain better control on experiencing the emotion and processing forward.

Trauma response symptomsEdit

A trauma response is an emotional reaction to a traumatic event. This can include natural disasters, rape, accidents, war, death and many more. Trauma symptoms have a range of effects including short term and long term effects. Denial and shock are associated to happen soon after the event[awkward expression?]. Long term effects including flashbacks, physical illness or pain, mood swings and strained relationships [grammar?] (Cherry, 2022).

Trauma symptom responses are strongly associated with the fight or flight responses due to the emotions being uncomfortable, harsh and difficult to cope with. Human instinct is to avoid painful emotions however this strategy can be harmful and cause emotions to increase intensity and become more detrimental (Cherry, 2022).

Therapists of trauma patients have used the wave metaphor as a visual technique to help take back control of their emotions (Cherry, 2022). People get scared when they're being approached by massive waves in the ocean and will try and fight the wave and end up tiring themselves out and make the situation worse. This process is similar to peoples[grammar?] trauma responses, emerged in strong and negative emotions people try to fight them and prolong their suffering. Instead they need to surrender to the wave and ride or float through the negative emotions.

Emotion regulationEdit

Emotional regulation is a developing field in psychology regarding the processes associated with emotional reactions including, recognising, modifying, evaluating and monitoring the situations. People vary in emotional regulation techniques and capabilities, using both interpersonal and intrapersonal resources to regulate their emotions. Studies have found that people who often regulate their emotions have significant positive correlation with self reported quality of life (Phillips & Power, 2007). Emotion regulation is a dynamic system process, incorporating psychological, biological and sociological factors which affect how people can self regulate. One perspective of emotion regulation is that emotions are a component of general self regulatory systems maintaining and modifying our behaviour to achieve goals. From this stance, the emotion being regulated is a combination of all the interacting subsystems (Butler, 2011).

Emotional regulation is vital for both good psychological and physiological health. Studies have found that the relationship between the mind and body can have both positive and negative correlations, including functioning of immune and cardiovascular systems, morbidity, mortality and disease severity. People with poor ability to regulate their emotions will experience worsen states of physical health and are prone to diseases and shorter life expectancies. By being able to regulate a person's own emotions can be linked to proactive adapting to handle the enviormental[spelling?] demands associated with being emotional intelligent(Song et al., 2015).

From these understandings of emotional regulation and its importance in living a healthy life it can be seen that optimising skills to achieve high emotion regulation is beneficial. The wave metaphor for emotion is a form of emotion regulation technique, requiring the person to identify the emotion they are feeling, experience the feeling as It comes and then moving forward accordingly with positive motions.

Reflection questions:

  • How does fight or flight interact with the wave metaphor?
  • How can visualising the wave metaphor help people deal with trauma symptoms?


The wave metaphor for emotion is a useful and relevant tool for people to better understand and control their emotion. The analogy originated from the depiction of the art work 'The Great Wave' which inspired thoughtful discourse and understanding of peoples emotions. Understanding a person's own emotions is a vital and crucial part of life which promotes happiness and health in life. Waves crash and flow with the potential to overwhelm and drown the person. Emotions hold the same capabilities over people if they don't know how to properly deal with them.

The useful visualisation of feeling emotions can be linked to many theories including the evolutionary theory of emotions, cognitive appraisal theory, James-Lange theory of emotion, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion. There are also many practical applications of the wave metaphor, being used to raise mental health, reduce trauma symptoms, boost emotional intelligence, emotionally regulate and correctly use fight or flight responses in necessary situations.

Although the wave metaphor for emotion is a useful tool which allows people to help guide and control their emotions it does have limitations and will not also be a tool which everyone finds useful. The metaphor requires a person to give in to the emotions they are feeling but if the person is unable to do so this skill will be of no use to them.

Overall the wave metaphor for emotion is a useful metaphor which can be implemented in everyday life to help people better feel their emotions in beneficial manners.

See alsoEdit


Anderson, K. (2022). Riding the Wave of Emotions — Mindsoother Therapy Center. Mindsoother Therapy Center.

Cherry, K. (2020). Cannon-Bard Theory and Physiological Reactions to Emotions. Verywell Mind.

Cherry, K. (2022). What Are the 6 Major Theories of Emotion?. Verywell Mind.

Delgado, J. (2022). The wave’s metaphor: How to control negative emotions before they control you. Psychology Spot.

Fight Or Flight Response - Psychology Tools. Psychology Tools. (2022).

Inglese, B. (2015). The Wave Is a Powerful Metaphorical Representation of the Inner Movement. International Coach Academy.

Jepsen, D. (2022). Waves of Positive Emotions. Melbourne Child Psychology.

LaMorte, W. (2016). What is Culture?.

Lichtenstein, S. (2019). Riding the Wave: DBT and Distress Tolerance - Erika's Lighthouse. Erika's Lighthouse.

Matsuba, R. (2019). A Wave of Emotion: ‘The Great Wave’ by Katsushika Hokusai.

Mohinuddin, M. (2017). Theories of Emotion: Evolutionary, Cannon-Bard, James-Lange and Schachter-Singer Theory. SWEduCareBD.

Nickerson, C. (2021). James-Lange Theory of Emotion - Simply Psychology.

Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature - ...metaphorically speaking. ...metaphorically speaking. (2018).

Theories of Emotion | Introduction to Psychology. (2022).

Tomasello, C. (2021). 3 Ways that Emotions Are like a Wave.

Turner, E. (2022). Cultural differences in emotional expressions. Paul Ekman Group.

What Are Emotions and Why Do They Matter?. Emotions. (2015)

Yarwood, M. (2022). Cognitive Appraisal Theory.

Greenwald, A. (2021, February 11). 4 tips to easily ride through a wave of emotions. Empower Your Mind Therapy.

Hwang, H., & Matsumoto, D. (2022). Functions of emotions. Noba.

Al-Shawaf, L., Conroy-Beam, D., Asao, K., & Buss, D. (2015). Human Emotions: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. Emotion Review, 8(2), 173-186.

Begum, J. (2021). What Is Cannon Bard Theory?. WebMD.

Butler, E. A. (2011, August 1). Three views of emotion regulation and health - butler - 2011 - compass hub. Three Views of Emotion Regulation and Health.

James, W. (1992). The emotions. The Emotions, 1, 93-135.

La Trobe University. (2019, September 17). Why emotional intelligence makes you more successful. Nest.

Lim, N. (2016). Cultural differences in emotion: differences in emotional arousal level between the East and the West. Integrative Medicine Research, 5(2), 105-109.

Phillips, K. F. V., & Power, M. J. (2007, April 10). A new self‐report measure of emotion ... - wiley online library. A new self-report measure of emotion regulation in adolescents: The Regulation of Emotions Questionnaire.

Song, Y., Lu, H., Hu, S., Xu, M., Li, X., & Liu, J. (2015, April). Regulating emotion to improve physical health through the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience.

The Science of Emotion: Exploring the Basics of Emotional Psychology | UWA Online. UWA Online. (2022).

Trauma. American Psychological Association. (2022).

Walinga, J., Stangor, C., Paul C. Price, R. S. J., Buss, D. M., Turkheimer, E., Weaver, I., Benjamin, A., Dijksterhuis, A., Fishbach, A., Malle, B., Kuhl, B., Laney, C., Brown, C. S., Pickett, C. L., Schroeder, D. A., Matsumoto, D., Watson, D., Poepsel, D. L., Diener, E., … Kashima, Y. (2019, June 28). 11.2 functions of emotions. Introduction to Psychology. Zajonc, R. (1998). APA PsycNet.