Is Disgust a Real Emotion?

Learn how this unpleasant emotion impacts your mind and body and get tips to manage when you feel repulsed.

Published December 28, 2022
Woman looking disgusted showing clogged filter and full dust box of the robot vacuum cleaner

Yuck! Gross! Ew! What do all of these phrases have in common? They're all expressions of disgust - an emotion that most of us find revolting. But while confronting something gross is never ideal, disgust is an emotion that can provide a range of benefits. Surprised? It's true - those icky experiences that make us want to turn up our noses can actually be good for us. There's a lot more to learn about this complex emotion and why it's actually helpful.

What Is Disgust?

Disgust describes the feeling that occurs when someone encounters something they find repugnant. A person might find something repulsive because of its smell or taste. But disgust can also be a response to behavior - such as actions that you find unethical or immoral. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a person may develop an aversion to these disgusting situations, and try to avoid them at all costs.

Fast Fact

Disgust is considered to be one of the six basic human emotions, according to some psychological theories. Our understanding of disgust has evolved over time, but experts generally believe it serves a fundamental purpose, primarily as one of the body's protection mechanisms.

It's widely believed that disgust helps us avoid consuming foods and liquids that might make us sick. In addition, it can also help us steer clear of areas and people that might be unsafe. Disgust can also help us avoid poisons, diseases, bacteria, and more.

Common Causes of Disgust

Disgust can be triggered by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. In addition, we might also feel disgust as a reaction to certain behaviors from others, such as bullying or lying.

It's important to note that not everyone finds the same things disgusting. A person's individual preferences and background can influence their reactions. For example, in some countries, eating snails is considered a delicacy. However, if you didn't come from an area where this meal was common, it might not sound too appetizing and you might experience disgust instead.

Some experiences that might trigger disgust include:

  • Eating a certain food you know you don't enjoy
  • Eating or drinking spoiled food, such as milk or sour cream
  • Hearing nails on a chalkboard
  • Listening to someone engage in discrimination
  • Seeing a person vomit
  • Smelling the scent of rotten eggs wafting out of the fridge
  • Stepping in a puddle of water with socks on
  • Watching a TV show with gory scenes

How Disgust Affects the Brain and Body

Disgust is powerful. When you feel disgusted you might feel like you need to gag, vomit, or even swear off certain foods for the rest of your life. What exactly makes disgust such a strong emotion? This intense feeling has a strong impact on both your brain and body.

Research has suggested that disgust interacts with your brain chemistry, leading to changes in your behaviors and perceptions. It's this combination of chemical and behavioral changes that packs such a heavy punch.

Changes in the Brain

Disgust is triggered by the release of certain hormones in the brain. When these chemicals are dispersed, they send signals throughout the body and cause you to feel repulsed by whatever activated their release.

These hormones work quickly and help you make split-second decisions to evaluate whether you find something pleasant or unpleasant. Then, you instinctively react by either enjoying or avoiding whatever stimulus you encountered.

Research shows that some of the main chemicals involved in the disgust response include:

  • Estrogen - Plays a role in regulation and how the facial expressions of disgust are perceived.
  • Oxytocin - Regulates brain activity in specific regions that are linked to social cognition and behaviors, as well as attachment.
  • Progesterone - Modifies an individual's sensitivity to disgust

When all of these hormones, as well as a few others, come together, they can make your skin crawl. In addition, they can influence the way you recognize the facial expressions of disgust in others, and even affect how you learn about what you find disgusting.

Changes in the Body

Think about something you find gross. Do you notice any changes in your face or body? There are several well-known signs that a person may be experiencing disgust. Many of these are reflected by changes in their facial features.

For example, some common facial changes include:

  • The bottom lip raises and sticks out slightly
  • The eyebrows lower
  • The nose wrinkles
  • The upper lip raises and forms an upside-down "u" shape

In addition to these facial expressions, you might stiffen up your body or move away from whatever has triggered your disgust. None of these physical changes is necessarily comfortable - leading to one more reason that you may want to avoid repulsive circumstances.

How to Relieve Feelings of Disgust

One of the good things about disgust is that it's like any other human emotion - it comes and it goes. So, no matter how disgusted you are in the current moment, take comfort in knowing that it will pass.

Luckily, there are some things you can do when you're feeling grossed out to make the experience just a bit easier. You might not be able to prevent yourself from being disgusted every now and then, but there are some steps you can take to help speed up the recovery process.

Take Some Space

If you're around something that you find disgusting, it might be beneficial to leave the area. When you create some distance, you give yourself the opportunity to recover from whatever unwanted experience you just had.

There are plenty of ways that taking some space can be beneficial when you experience something disgusting:

  • If you smell something nasty, you can take a clean, fresh breath.
  • If you eat something you didn't like, you can drink some water.
  • If you hear something unpleasant, you can move out of range.
  • If you touch something gross, you can wash your hands.
  • If you see something upsetting, you can remove yourself from the situation.

Space is good. Do what you need to get away from whatever grossed you out. It can help you recover and relax.

Experience Something You Enjoy

Another great way to reduce your feelings of disgust is to surround yourself with things that you actually like. This can help wash away the unpleasant experience and redirect your thoughts and sensations toward something you enjoy.

Consider these different ways to recover:

  • If you smell something that makes your stomach churn, sniff a fragrance you like.
  • If you ate something that didn't taste right, take a bite of food that you know is safe and yummy.
  • If you hear a sound that makes your toes curl, listen to some music that can lift you back up.
  • If you touch something that makes your skin crawl, wash your hands with soap you enjoy.
  • If you see something gross, shift your attention to a better area around you or look at old photos.

As unpleasant as it may be, encountering something disgusting can be a learning opportunity. When you find something gross, you can make a mental note to try and avoid it in the future. In addition, disgust can help you define your boundaries around what you like and dislike. Every time you encounter something disgusting, you can think, "I'm learning just a little bit more about myself," and that might make the experience a tad more enjoyable.

Is Disgust a Real Emotion?