They are as certain as death and taxes. They dominate our life. They often fluctuate minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year. They are a fabric of our very inner most being. Billions of dollars are spent every year in marketing to lure us in through them. Words describing them show up everywhere in our languages. Even in our sleep, we experience them. They often consume us. They are responsible for some of the most magnificent creations and the most atrocious deeds. They remain with us from the very beginning of life and only leave us when we are gone from this earth. They are our emotions.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our feelings have always played a critical role in our survival. They have guided us toward life-preserving actions and away from things that threaten our existence. They are vital to sustaining us as a species. They are necessary in understanding much of who we are, whether we are eight or eighty.
From the simplest of perspective, four basic emotions form a foundation of our daily experience. They are fear, anger, sadness, and happiness. They are known by many different names, but all are identifiable even by very young children. Three out of four are perceived to be negative. Only happiness is sought as an end in itself. The rest must be reasoned with, which implies that the thoughts associated with each feeling may be just as important as the feeling itself. No one seeks to be angry, or sad, or fearful, but instead we wrestle with each as we seek a happier resolution.
Beyond these four basic emotions, we can further distinguish between different categories of feelings although there’s certainly grey area. The first category involves emotions seemingly meant for immediate activation, what we will call lower-order emotions. These include anxiety, fear, rage, and euphoria, among others. Recent research has indicated that when these activating emotions go unaddressed (especially at young age), they seem to create a chronic state of inflammation in the body. This not only can lead to bad choices and bad moods. It also seems to create a greater risk for diseases, such as cardiovascular, cancer and autoimmune conditions that may not manifest until decades later. These emotional states were never intended to last a long time.
The second category of emotions is what we will call higher-order emotions. Not surprisingly these take much longer to register in the body than the first. Some seem to welcome a chronic course, and the more they are present, the better outcomes we see. These are the emotions of love, trust, empathy, compassion, and others. Other higher-order emotions, such as depression, despair, helplessness, and apathy are unfortunate holdovers from activators never resolved.
So it makes us wonder that if the largest portion of basic feelings are negative and if the purpose of these emotions is not the feelings themselves, then they must be there for a reason. The issue is that this logic often does not seem to coincide with our actions. Instead of discerning the reason for our feelings, our first response is often one of avoidance or denial. We often seek to repress these emotions, to squelch their intensity, to distract ourselves away from them. There is a reason that anti-depressants are a thirteen billion dollar industry. There is a reason that neuropsychiatric disorders prove far and away the most common cause of disability and premature death in the world. Emotions can be excruciating to deal with. They can seem overwhelming and exhausting. They can wreak havoc not only on our state of mind, but the state of our body. Who can blame us for wanting to just get rid of them in any way possible?
However, when people offer helpful ideas, we often reject them because accepting them would acknowledge that others are not solely responsible for our struggles, that we are part of the problem. We want something or someone to simply take the horrible feelings away, not suggest that the solution may lie within our willingness and commitment to change. Admitting that our pride, the root of all vices, may be rendering us immobile acknowledges the most difficult reality of all: all change starts from within. And so we often run from this, seeking out evidence that would support how we have been wronged, avoiding that which may not confirm our worst fears. In psychology, we call this confirmatory bias. It is the process by which we consciously or unconsciously seek out experiences or ideas that support what we believe while discarding or ignoring those that do not. The potential travesty of this bias is that it may serve to lead us to our truth, not necessarily the truth. The more this happens over time, and the more we seek to avoid acknowledging the true emotional turmoil from within, the harder change becomes.
But for a second, let’s return to the evolutionary principle. Anthropologists universally agree that emotions are there for a reason. If sometimes they seem excessive, they certainly are not superfluous, and they carry important messages that we need to heed.
Let’s take anxiety. Though anxiety disorders are the most common psychological diagnosis in adults and kids, all anxiety is not bad. Some is actually very good, not to mention informative. Before we are quick to find ways to medicate or avoid our anxiety, we might want to ask the question: Is my anxiety telling me something? Avoiding anxiety on the short-term feels great because it takes the discomfort away, but in the long-term, it can rob us in many ways. It may take away the opportunity to improve a skill, such as public speaking, that opens doors; keep us from overcoming a fear – of dogs, for example, that allows us to move about more freely; or lead us to avoid confronting a thorny disagreement, that would allow us to get closer to a friend; or leave us susceptible to bad habits and addictions to relieve unresolved worry. The reality is that the avoidance of anxiety may not be the best pathway, even though it certainly feels like the best choice.
The same goes for all other emotions. Sometimes our fears are telling us to get away quickly, such as with an oncoming train. Sometimes our anger is telling us we need to step away and cool off before doing something we might regret. Many times our feelings are actually giving us an opportunity to recognize a weakness or an imbalance in our life. But whether emotions serve as an entreaty for engagement or retreat, they only enable progress if we willingly listen to what they’re telling us.
In theory, this idea seems rather straightforward. In practice, it is anything but. The idea of facing our feelings head on is a deeply uncomfortable proposition. It means we must tolerate uncertainty. It means we must cope with awkwardness, even in our own mind. Facing our fears is universally taught as the precursor to courage, but understanding our feelings and acting on what they tell us is real fortitude.
There are a few big challenges that we must face. First is the acknowledgment that the way we have been doing things may not be the way we really want or should be doing things. Second, is knowing that we may have to seek out forgiveness, including from ourselves, as well as others. Few enjoy this, but the result can be liberating. Finally, we must be willing to embrace the idea that the greatest rewards come from the most difficult struggles.
If we can embrace these challenges, then the potential to learn from our emotions can yield a satisfaction greater than we can imagine. But all of this is only possible if we allow for a few basic things when we feel an emotion coming on. One is time. Without it, it is impossible to learn. Two is the willingness to tolerate discomfort without quickly seeking to get rid of the feeling itself. Three is openness to the insight that may come, even if it impels us to take a different direction. Four is action, even if it is in the smallest degree. Regarding anxiety, it has been shown that the best treatment consists of gradual exposure with response prevention. In other words, it is taking small steps (e.g., looking at pictures of snakes in a book) while using calming techniques (e.g., deep breathing) before we move onto something more challenging. Without action of any kind, our feelings serve to stagnate us, often for decades.
So if we are a species of emotions, and emotions serve a clear function, then we owe it to ourselves to pay close attention to what they are saying. We do this when our engine light goes on (or at least we should). We do this when the smoke alarm goes off. We do this when we hear a siren coming down the road. Why wouldn’t we do this when we find ourselves anxious for the umpteenth time in the same situation? It seems that if we are stuck with them, we might as well use them to grow and create deeper meaning in our life. Many well-researched techniques exist to help us do this, including some which are free (see the other related links regarding Expressive Writing).
Just because the saber tooth tiger is extinct doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action when the hair is bristling up our back and our muscles suddenly go tight.