How Emotions Help Us
I’ve noticed a trend of #GoodVibesOnly on social media or messages encouraging us to “Choose Happiness.” For some reason these messages have always rubbed me the wrong way, and it wasn’t until I started therapy that I understood why. Yes, it is helpful to have a positive outlook a lot of the time, but it is also helpful to experience the full range of emotions – even the difficult ones. Emotions have the power to provide us useful information. Information that can help us increase our awareness, grow, and make change in our lives. Here is what I have learned so far about the utility of our 4 core emotions as well as the states of being anxious and depressed.
Happiness – When we think of happiness, we think of smiles, laughter, and enjoyment. Being happy is a pleasurable emotion, so it makes sense that we would want to be happy all the time. But happiness, like all emotions, will come and go. It is unrealistic to expect ourselves to be happy all the time or even most of the time. During times when you’re feeling less happy, try to cultivate a mindset of contentment. Find satisfaction with the small things in life such as your favorite cup of coffee or a beautiful sunset.
Anger – Anger seems to be one of the more misunderstood emotions, often because anger is expressed in a destructive way with harmful words and/or actions. But anger is actually a very useful emotion. It often lets us know when a boundary has been crossed. Anger can also remind us of how strong we are. Used constructively, anger can help us find the strength to recognize unhealthy situations, and then assertively set healthy boundaries.
"Recognizing and experiencing all of our emotions is key to increasing awareness about ourselves and the world around us. The key is to not try to control them or get stuck in them."
Sadness – People tend to ignore their sadness out of fear that it won’t every dissipate, but ignoring the sadness and not allowing ourselves to cry can actually cause depression. We need to pay attention to our sadness because it often lets us know that something or someone that we care about is changing or gone. Society has taught us to hide our sadness and feel embarrassment when we cry. But crying flushes out stress hormones and then releases endorphins that help ease the pain. The key is to focus on how your body feels/changes as it completes this stress cycle instead of ruminating on the pain.
Fear – Fear was a particularly useful emotion thousands of years ago for cavemen when they were fighting off saber tooth tigers. In the modern world where for many of us death is not a daily threat, humans tend to more fearful of impending change – changes in relationships, jobs, political climates, etc. Recognizing what we are afraid of and then deciding what action we can take to protect ourselves can help calm that our nervous system so that we do not perpetually live in a state of fight, flight, flee, or fain.
Depression – Depression is not a core emotion, but more of a physical state of hypo-arousal (exhaustion, flat affect, disconnection) that is accompanied by a number of emotions including sadness. Depression and anxiety usually go hand-in-hand. Our bodies can only stay in an anxious state until it becomes exhausted and plummets into depression. Depression can give our bodies time to rest and our minds time to reflect on what is or isn’t working in our lives. It can also eventually lead to widening your support network in seeking help, building coping skills, and increasing empathy for others who have been in similar situations.
Anxiety – Anxiety is also not a core emotion, but more of a physical state of hyper-arousal (difficulty concentrating, inability to relax, sleeplessness) that is accompanied by a flood of emotions including fear. Anxiety in its extreme form can cause high blood pressure, digestion problems, and a host of other ailments. But a helpful amount of anxiety can help us stay alert, be aware of risks, and motivate us to take action.
“If we numb ourselves to the difficult emotions, then we’re also numbing ourselves to the pleasurable emotions.”
Recognizing and experiencing all of our emotions is key to increasing awareness about ourselves and the world around us. The key is to not try to control them or get stuck in them. Instead, accept the emotions you’re feeling and realize they are not permanent. Then ask yourself what is causing the emotion and what you can learn from it. Be open to the information your emotions provide you. And use coping skills if the emotions become too overwhelming.
And remember, we can only feel intense happiness if we have also felt the intensity of the more difficult emotions. Conversely, if we numb ourselves to the difficult emotions, then we’re also numbing ourselves to the pleasurable emotions.
If you feel stuck in your emotions or uncertain what they are trying to tell you, schedule a free 15 minute consultation to see if counseling might help.