Emotions! What are they good for? Absolutely... Something??
Learn more about why you have emotions and what you can do with them
Have you ever asked yourself why we as human beings have emotions – what purpose they serve for us?
Evolutionarily, emotions are a characteristic of mammals. While lizards aren’t really known for their complex emotional lives, we do think of dogs for example as having and expressing emotions.
Having emotions seems to provide us with a few different benefits that helps us survive:
1) Emotions motivate us to act quickly when we need to
(fear of imminently hitting a car in front of you on the road causes you to push on the breaks).
2) Emotions can communicate important information to other people
(crying may bring out reassurance or comfort from loved ones).
3) Emotions communicate information to ourselves in a different way from our thoughts
(“listening to your gut” when you have an uneasy sense that your logical mind cannot yet pinpoint).
When we better understand how our emotions work, it becomes easier to know what to do with them. Our body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism is designed to keep us safe when we experience a threat by helping prepare us to either fight off, run away from, or outlast the threat. Interestingly, several of our core emotions map onto changes in the nervous system that happen from Fight-Flight-Freeze:
Anger, connected to the “Fight” part of the mechanism, is an emotion that happens when we identify a threat and see ourselves as capable of taking on the threat. Bodily changes include muscles tightening, teeth clenching, hands shaking, and your face feeling hot.
If you feel angry, it likely means that an important goal for you is being blocked, you sense an injustice or unfairness about the way things are done, or sense a threat to you or someone/something you care about.
In many situations it can be necessary to pay attention to and respond to our anger. For example, if a friend repeatedly acts in a rude way toward you, your anger may direct you to bring it up with the friend, which can either help repair the relationship or at least better clarify the nature of it going forward.
Sometimes, when we experience anger but are unable to respond directly through our actions, our reaction will take the form of angry rumination, or thinking about the anger-provoking situation over and over again and our potential responses to it. This often serves to keep our nervous systems in an activated state and keeps us angry longer.
Therapy can be helpful for people in determining what to do with their anger, and whether or not there could be anything productive about acknowledging it.
Fear and anxiety are connected to the “Flight” part of the mechanism, and involve a strong motivation to escape the situation/threat. With much overlap with anger physiology, physical changes in fear/anxiety include muscles tightening, teeth clenching, rapid breathing, increased heart-rate, upset stomach, sweating, and dizziness/lightheadedness.
These changes are largely because, in this activated state, your body is sending blood to all of your large muscle groups to prepare you to either fight or flee the threat. The body de-prioritizes other functions such as more rational and planful thinking, digestion, and immune function (this is one way in which chronic stress can harm physical health over time).
One of the most amazing things about humans - our power for abstract thought and reasoning - is also the primary cause of our problems with anxiety. As described in the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, humans have a unique ability to repeatedly put ourselves through our Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism via the power of our thoughts. In other words, having an anxious thought about something that could possibly go wrong can then trigger your body to react the same way as if it were facing a physical threat in its environment.
There are times where it is helpful to respond to our anxiety, such as when anxiety over a test motivates us to study, or fear spurs us to escape a situation of true danger. The most common problematic relationship with anxiety however, is to over-engage in worrying, or anxious rumination, where the end result of the worrying does not result in any advantage to the person. This style of relating to anxiety tends to be based on an underlying belief or rule that fear signals from the body always indicate an accurate assessment of threat. A more helpful way to relate to the fear cues can be to treat them as a signal to check out whether or not there is a threat that needs to be responded to.
Therapy can help people better identify their own relationship to anxiety and learn to change it over time.
Sadness, Feeling Empty, and Dissociation (“Freeze”)
The “Freeze” part of the mechanism is what activates when we are faced with a perceived threat and we’re unable to or it seems unwise to fight back or try to flee from the threat. The emotion that most closely maps onto the “Freeze” response is sadness, which is what we feel when we have lost something. In some cases, what we’ve lost might be something abstract, like a friend or partner’s respect, or a sense of safety in the world after experiencing a trauma.
Sadness as an emotion is a part of our system of caring about ourselves, other people, and things that are important to us. We generally have a cultural understanding that we benefit from processing through feelings of sadness and mourning from the loss of a significant relationship in order to make way for something new.
Alternatively, acting on our sadness and giving up may be ineffective if the thing we believe is lost is not actually lost yet. For example, feeling hopeless that your mental health will ever improve can cause someone to give up on the idea of trying to work on it, when in reality, working on it little by little can improve their mental health.
In a more heightened state of the “Freeze” response, a person will feel empty and/or emotionally shut down. This can manifest as the body feeling heavy and the mind going into a state of detachment. This often happens in relationship arguments where one person begins to feel emotionally overwhelmed or flooded. Other people may have an automatic habit of quickly going into emotional shutdown such that they don’t ever get to the point of feeling flooded because this mechanism kicks in before that has a chance to happen.
In an even more heightened state of the “Freeze” response, a person will begin to dissociate, which is when someone experiences perceptual changes (for example, feeling time slow down, seeing oneself from outside their body, losing awareness of time). Dissociation is designed as a self-protective mechanism within the body and is often activated during extreme events like trauma. Of course, experiencing frequent dissociation can become disruptive to someone’s life, and learning Grounding Techniques can be a helpful tool at staying present in your body.
Therapy can help people understand their “Freeze” response and how it impacts them, and can help people start to change their automatic habits with emotions.
Social Emotions: Shame, Guilt, Envy, Jealousy, Love
Social emotions are ones that are primarily activated in the context of people’s relationships. Here are some brief descriptions of some of these emotions:
Shame is an emotion that is activated when we sense that a part of ourselves or a behavior we engage in is not approved of by the community. In terms of human evolution, this emotion has helped people stay in good standing with their community.
However, we can develop an unhealthy relationship with shame when an overwhelming number of our behaviors or thoughts produce shame, such as when making a simple mistake.
Additionally, because shame shares some physiology with both the “Flight” response (that is, fear of upsetting or disappointing others) and the “Freeze” response (feelings of shame can trigger the sense of shutting down emotionally), frequent feelings of shame can leave one feeling immobilized to improve their situation.
In contrast to shame, which is focused on others’ potential reactions to us or our behavior, guilt is an emotion that tells us that we have violated our own moral code. Of course, this makes it a very important emotion to listen to when a change in our behavior is needed. This emotion helps keep us on track of living a life that we value.
We can develop an unhealthy relationship with guilt if we feel it frequently for behaviors which do not actually violate our moral codes. For example, feeling guilty that you were unable to pick up a friend because you got a flat tire is ineffective because there’s no behavior that needs to be changed, merely a spot of bad luck.
Envy is an emotion that activates when we see others get what we want or need but don’t have. In terms of the Fight-Flight-Freeze emotions, it is most closely aligned with anger. In terms of positives, envy can sometimes motive us to work harder or channel that sense of drive into something constructive. On the other hand, when giving in to our base instincts, envy can cause us to act outside of our values, prompting feelings of guilt.
Jealousy occurs when we sense a threat of someone else taking someone or something we care about away. For example, feeling jealous is natural when a friend makes a strong connection with someone new, and we feel a sense of insecurity about our connection with them. Jealousy can prompt us to further invest in relationships that matter most to us, but can also lead us to act outside of our values, once again prompting feelings of guilt.
Love is an emotion that motivates us to seek out close other people and maintain our most important connections. Its biological underpinnings include Oxytocin, a hormone released in the body in response to touch and other nurturance, as well through sex and physical exercise more broadly. While having love in your life can add a lot of purpose and meaning to it, this also does not mean that it is a universally positive emotion. For example, when someone loves another person who harms them, their love can maintain the harm over a longer period of time.
The Basics of Emotional Processing
The concept of emotional processing in therapy acknowledges that our emotions often have important information to tell us, so we can’t ignore them completely. At the same, it’s not always helpful to lean further into our emotions when they aren’t generating anything of value for us. As a result, emotional processing involves understanding your emotions on a case by case basis to see how they function for you.
The first step of any emotional processing involves building your awareness for your emotions, and learning to put more descriptive words to your emotional experience. For this, a helpful resource is finding an Emotions Wheel, like the one shown below which can be downloaded from this source. Getting better at naming your emotions actually rewires your brain over time by building stronger and stronger connections from our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for rational thought and planning, to our limbic system, the part of our brain responsible for emotion and triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response.
Additional emotional processing steps include determining whether our emotions and their intensity fit the actual situation at hand, and determining whether or not it’s wise to act on what the emotion is telling you to do, which then can guide your course of action.
If you are interested in better understanding your relationship with emotions or developing your skills with emotional processing in therapy, and you live in the Seattle or greater Washington area, please reach out for a free 15-minute phone consultation.