All About Emotion (article in progress)

by | Apr 25, 2022

Why do we have emotion? What does it do for us? How often and how strongly should we feel some sort of emotion? Is it good or bad to be ’emotional’? Are there good and bad emotions and can we control them? Can emotion be physical? How much worry is normal? When does stress become unhealthy? Are there emotions we should ignore or avoid or should we always let our feelings out?

Emotions come under the umbrella of ‘feelings’. Feelings are designed to get our attention. There are about 37 thousand billion billion chemical reactions happening in the body every second. These are going on without our conscious knowledge; we are not aware of them. Feelings are within our awareness. Therefore, evolution has put them there for a reason. If we are aware of a feeling, it is there to get our attention.

Each feeling is there to draw our attention to help us decide whether we need to take any particular action or not. The major role of the subconscious part of the brain is survival and it does this by trying to keep the whole organism in equilibrium – known as ‘homeostasis’. As soon as we are not in homeostasis – or the brain thinks we might not be in homeostasis – we will get a feeling, to direct our attention towards a possible need that is not being met or possibly being met well. The feeling may either be unpleasant or pleasant. A pleasant feeling is telling us we are probably doing something that is meeting our needs. An unpleasant feeling is there to draw our attention to see if there is a need that is not being met. Feelings are just messengers trying to get our conscious attention.

What is meant by ‘needs’? All living things have their own unique set of needs in order to thrive. The more complex the organism, the more complex the set of needs. Human beings have the most complex brains and nervous systems in the universe (as far as we know!) and so have the most complex set of needs. Luckily, we live in an age where the science has been done and sufficient conclusions have been reached in this field so we can confidently state what the needs of a human being are.

These ‘needs’ are just what they say they are; needs! We have to have them. They are non-negotiable. For a human being to thrive and be healthy it must get its needs met in balance. When a human being is thriving and healthy, it is because they are getting their needs met. If a human being is not getting its needs met, it cannot thrive and be healthy. So looking at it the other way round, when a human being is not thriving and is unhealthy in some way, it is because it is not getting its needs met in balance. As soon as it starts to get its needs met in balance again, it can then return to thriving and being healthy. Hopefully you get the point!

So, what does every human being need to thrive and be healthy:

  • Sufficient physical comfort (being free of pain)
  • Nutrients (the diet that we have evolved to eat)
  • Sleep and rest
  • Movement and exercise
  • To feel safe and secure
  • A sense of control, autonomy and choice in our life
  • To have a sense of achievement and competence
  • To have a sense meaning and purpose
  • To be able to have time to be alone/privacy
  • To receive and give attention from and to others
  • To have friendship/intimacy
  • To belong to a wider community
  • To be valued and respected for our unique contribution

To stay permanently in perfect homeostasis is impossible for a human being. We are constantly shifting in and out of balance – even with every breath. Being in a state of homeostasis means being in that state where we ‘feel fine’, we feel pretty neutral. If we don’t particularly feel anything and we just feel at ease, it is a sign that our needs are being met in that moment. If we can achieve this state of being for the majority of the time, we are doing well. It is unrealistic, and even undesirable, to expect to be able to maintain this state of being all the time, but we should certainly be aiming to be in this general zone for most of our waking day.

Why? What happens when we are not in this neutral state? What happens when we don’t feel so ‘neutral’ and start to feel stronger emotion?

Emotion and Available Intelligence

When we are at ease, feeling relaxed and fine, not particularly desiring or needing anything, we have access to our full intelligence. This is when we have a high level of coherence between the left and right hemispheres, as well as the conscious and subconscious parts of the brain. When we are calm and relaxed, there is a higher level of coherence between our bodily systems. Major bodily systems like our digestive system, our cardiovascular system, our respiratory system, our immune system all function better but also coordinate, communicate and co-operate with each other. The systems work well together for the greater good of the whole body. When our bodily systems are all functioning in harmony we are in a good state of health.

The less we feel relaxed and at ease, in other words the more we start to feel some emotion (regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant), the less coherent our brains and bodies become. Emotion directs our attention towards taking some form of action, whether that be going towards something or getting away from something. If we are out of homeostasis and there is a need that must be met, the brain’s and body’s resources must be diverted accordingly. If we are moving into survival mode, on alert, preparing to fight or flee, then energy is going to have to be diverted to boost certain bodily systems. For example the cardiovascular and the respiratory systems will need to work harder to send blood to vital muscles whilst other systems, for example the digestion and the immune system, need to shut down so energy is not being wasted whilst we are getting through this emergency.

One we start to enter into survival mode, we need our instincts to kick in. Our instincts and stored pattern-matches from all our experiences reside in the subconscious so we need our conscious brain to reduce its input so the subconscious to take over. Our brains and bodily systems are now doing what they have to do to get our needs met so we can return to homeostasis. Our bodies and our brains are in a state of incoherence, and therefore are less able to coordinate, communicate and co-operate. This means we do not have access to our full intelligence – we have access to our survival instincts – and our attention and focus is narrowed down to target the unmet need. So the stronger the emotion, the less intelligent we become. Or to put it more bluntly, the stronger the emotion, the more stupid we become.

Surely then, this is a design fault. Why would evolution reduce our intelligence as emotion increases? How could we have survived this long as a species if, when we become scared or angry or excited or loving, we become less intelligent? Well, actually, for very good reason and looking at emotion through the lens of evolution can help us gain greater understanding.

Imagine 30,000 years ago, before agriculture and civilised society, when human beings lived out in the environment, as an integral part of nature, there would have been times when we knew we were safe and so could relax, be at ease, tell stories, maybe start to create art or make music, stop to ponder and consider ‘life, the universe and everything’. There would have been other times, for example when out hunting or when under threat of invasion by a neighbouring tribe, that we would have needed to be on alert and paying attention to our environment. Losing concentration, in these scenarios, could prove fatal. In these situations, the right amount of fear, anticipation, preparedness and anger was necessary to sustain focus and survive.

Emotion exists to make us pay attention. There are times in life where we need to pay close attention, either because it poses a risk and hinders our chance of survival or because it is beneficial to us and improves our life in some way. When we are relaxed and have access to our full intelligence, we can place our attention easily wherever we choose. Emotions, however, force our brains to focus on something in particular and the more our brains think we need to pay attention, the stronger the emotion will be. So, does that mean that strong emotions are bad for us? Should we never feel emotion strongly?

The key thing with emotion is ‘appropriateness’. It is important to be aware of our emotions so we can ask ourselves if they are appropriate and in proportion to the situation. There is nothing wrong with feeling a strong emotion if it is appropriate to the situation we are in. Whether it is an uncomfortable feeling like fear, guilt, shame, pain, loss, sadness; a potentially destructive feeling like anger; or pleasant feelings like love, joy, enthusiasm, hope, etc, every feeling, at every intensity, has its place in the rich tapestry of life. So, the important thing about emotions is, firstly, to become aware of them. Notice them and pay attention – that is what they are there for after all. We can’t question the appropriateness of a given emotion if we are ignoring it, denying it or not fully aware of it.

Feelings, sensations and emotions begin in the unconscious mind and, if we don’t notice them, that’s where they stay. All unwanted thoughts and behaviours come from feelings of stress that the conscious mind is not paying enough attention to. Our conditioning, in modern society, tends towards ignoring, avoiding, denying and struggling through feelings of stress. This is the opposite of what they are designed to do to help us be healthy. The modern world is rife with emotional ignorance and this ignorance is leading to a lot of unnecessary excess suffering.

The Implications of Stress

When we think about how life 30,000 years ago compares with modern life now we can easily imagine how very different things are. Life back then was simple but very harsh and dangerous. In comparison, life now can be very complex but, for the vast majority of people, a lot more comfortable and safe. We have the same genes, the same physiology, the same bodily processes as we had back then but are too often allowing ourselves to go into survival mode when we are not in any actual danger. The chemicals and hormones of stress which put us into fight-or-flight mode helped us survive literal life threatening situations thousands of years ago. Those same chemicals are being pumped around the body these days but in very different circumstances.

Most people may be aware of the phrase ‘fight-or-flight’ but very few have considered that, as far as the body is concerned, it is literal. The body does not distinguish between a literal emergency where we may need to fight or run for our lives and a modern-day figurative fight-or-flight situation where we just have a temporary problem that we need to get through. Most people would accept that it is extremely rare that we find ourselves in a genuine survival situation and yet still accept stress as an appropriate response to most everyday modern problems and complaints.

I believe it is time for society to start questioning and rethinking our commonplace reactions. I would proffer that it is not unusual to use or hear someone use the word ‘stress’ everyday in some form. I think that stress is felt, encouraged, copied and expected throughout society and, whilst the word itself may be fairly modern, the sentiment goes back a long way. From when we started to create ever-larger societies with an agricultural-based system to feed everyone, we started to move away from living in tune with nature. Rather than only being in survival mode when it was appropriate, over the last 10,000 years the changing landscape of how human beings live together in larger groups has completely altered the appropriateness of our survival emotions.

For about 10,000 years, humanity has been trying to find security: a secure place to live, a secure source of food, a secure and sustainable way to live. Over the centuries, power struggles have ensued between rival tribes competing for territory and we are now living in a time where we can be confident that the majority of the squabbles over territory have been settled. We have countries and borders which, for the most part, are no longer disputed. The threat of our country being invaded is negligible for the vast majority of people, so the fear of losing our place of security should not exist for most people. (Of course, there are still significant tensions between certain countries and real threats of invasion, but most of the world accepts the borders that are now in place.)

Western societies have also reached a point where they are able to produce large amounts of food and the vast majority of people are able to access enough of it to sustain themselves. The fear of starvation is not a real concern for most people. Also, most people can find a way to make a living, or have access to help from society, and so have the means to sustain themselves. The modern world also has healthcare systems that provide the help people need when their health problems are beyond that which they can solve themselves.

So, for the last 10,000 years, the competitions for territory and resources have got us to this point in history where people are more secure than ever. When we feel secure in every sense, we can relax, we can return to homeostasis, our needs are met, we are back in balance – we are at peace. We are no longer in survival mode. Survival mode was only a temporary state we needed to be in to get through the problem we had. 30,000 years ago, survival mode was essential in times of danger. Once the danger had passed, we would return to peace – just as all of nature does still. For the last 10,000 years we have moved away from living in nature and, at the same time, moved away from our own true nature. Our true nature is to be at peace – that is our natural state that we are always aiming to return to. Survival mode is merely a temporary necessity when there is a need that must be met.

So, how often would we say the average person is in survival mode? And how often is it necessary?

Emotion and Selfishness

Modern western society, as a whole, is not very skilled at dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Consider two phrases that highlight a cultural attitude to focusing on ourselves. The old phrase ‘stiff upper lip’ refers to carrying on regardless and implies a shameful weakness of character if we should ever acknowledge our own pain or suffering; ‘there are others worse off’ implies that it is selfish to focus our attention on ourselves (and also that being ‘selfish’ is a bad thing). So, if we ever stop and pay attention to our own discomfort, pain or suffering, then we must be weak and selfish and should be ashamed of ourselves.

(It is at this point that we must be careful we do not go too far into focusing on ourselves. This is not what I am suggesting and it is the fear of this happening that, no doubt, allowed those two phrases to proliferate. Balance and appropriateness – in all things – is the key.)

There is nothing actually wrong with either of those phrases, it’s all in the context. As mentioned earlier, living healthily is about staying in balance as best we can. There are times when we have to keep going despite wanting to give up and there are times when we can become overly focused on ourselves when our attention would be better off being focusing externally. We are a social animal and we survive best as a tribe. Balance is about understanding when and to what extent we should pay attention to our needs and when we should be focused on the needs of others. There is a balance to strike between selfishness and selflessness. So just how selfish should we be? Being ‘selfish’ carries negative connotations but I would like to propose a fresh way at looking at this concept.

When we consider the state we are in at birth, it is easy to see that we are born 100% selfish. This is a biological necessity. We are completely helpless and reliant on our care-givers to provide for us so we have to shout, cry and scream to let them know when we need something. Our needs are fairly simple at birth (food, sleep, comfort, loving attention, security) but we are dependent on others to get them met otherwise we will die. As we get older, it is the job of our care-givers to help us move towards independence, which means we have to learn how to get our needs met more and more for ourselves. So we move from complete selfishness towards selflessness but, again, we would die if we went 100% selfless. If we always put everyone else first, we wouldn’t be getting our needs met, and so would lack the necessary human ‘nourishment’ to survive.

So, what is the appropriate balance between selfishness and selflessness that we should aim for? Clearly, there is a spectrum; there is a scale that we move along. We definitely start at one end and we definitely shouldn’t reach the other end, so where should we try to reach? It may seem logical to suggest 50% between the two but I will try to show how this is not correct. Let us consider the analogy of the aeroplane instruction to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’. Surely, if you were a parent of a toddler, who is not able to put their own mask on, you should at least put their mask on before your own? It would only take a few seconds and it would be an easy task to manage, so why not?

Here’s why. Who is next to the toddler? An elderly person who needs help putting their mask on. Who is next to them? A disabled person who can’t put their own mask on. So, are you just going to put the toddler’s on and ignore the others whilst you selfishly put your own on? What kind of a monster are you?! The fact is that, in life, there will always be an endless line of people who need help in some way but we can only help them if we are first helping ourselves and taking care of our own needs.

If we have been well brought-up and we have learned to take care of ourselves independently, then that is of benefit to our society because we are not a burden on anyone else. If we try to help everyone in our vicinity who needs it before helping ourselves, at some point we are going to run out of strength and energy which then leaves us vulnerable and now a problem for somebody else. Through our excessive selflessness, we are now dependent on somebody else’s help for our own survival. We are now forced to be selfish and have to become reliant on someone else’s support. This is the very opposite of what we set out to achieve.

I would suggest that 55-60% selfish is where we should aim for. This is purely conceptual and impossible to measure but implies that we put our needs just before those of others. This does not mean we only consider our own needs – that would imply we were being more than 60% selfish – as that would not be good for our interactions and relationships with others. It does mean that, for those who tend to always put others first and disregard their own needs, this concept can help them rebalance and get more control over their life. It can be liberating for people who recognise that they always put others first and have huge knock-on benefits for their relationships when their loved ones see that they are happier, they too can relax more. As we learn to take responsibility for ourselves, it means we reduce the chance of becoming a burden for others. Being too selfless, results in us becoming a burden on our loved ones – the last thing we would want. Therefore, finding the right level of selfishness is ultimately the most selfless thing we can do!

So, to recap so far: we are human beings with human needs that have to be met in balance for us to thrive; to help us get our needs met, we have the bodily function of feelings and emotions; every feeling is there to get our attention so we can make conscious decisions about how best to get our needs met; once we are aware of what we are feeling, we can decide if it is appropriate to the situation; uncomfortable emotions put us in survival mode and, the stronger the emotion, the more we are using survival instincts to get through the situation we are in; if we do not pay attention to our emotions and instead, prioritise the needs of others, we will eventually end up suffering and having to rely on the support of others for our well-being

Can We Control Emotion?

No and yes! It is important to have some understanding of the order in which the brain processes information. Every waking moment, the brain is processing millions of pieces of information coming via our senses. The brain is a pattern-matching machine. The subconscious stores every experience we have ever encountered and uses those experiences to pattern-match to new experiences. In this way, it can have a good idea about whether we are safe or not; whether we can relax or whether we need to be on alert or take action.

Every object, person, situation, etc. we have ever experienced has a feeling attached to it. Most objects, people and situations are safe and benign so the feeling that is attached is very subtle – if it doesn’t pose a danger, we don’t need a strong emotion to make us pay attention. Nevertheless, once a piece of information has been pattern-matched, the next stage is a feeling/emotion. These processes take place in the subconscious; they happen so fast, they are beyond our conscious control. The final stage in the process is thought and the initial thoughts we have will be connected to the feeling that came from the pattern-match which came from the incoming information. All of this, so far has been unconscious.

IPET:          Incoming information   >   Pattern-match   >   Emotion   >   Thought

So far, none of this has particularly been within our control. But, once those emotions and thoughts are available for us to feel and listen to, we have the chance to become conscious of what is going on. Once we become conscious of our thoughts and feelings we can think, we can choose where we put our attention and therefore the take control. Sometimes we may catch ourselves feeling something and we are not sure why and sometimes we may find ourselves thinking something and we don’t know why. Once we understand the IPET process, we can use it to help ourselves.

If we are unsure why we are thinking or feeling something, we can work backwards through the process. Intrusive thoughts are coming through the subconscious from an emotion which came from a pattern-match which came from incoming information. (Beware, particularly for people with powerful imaginations, sometimes their own thoughts can BE the incoming information which then leads to further pattern-matching which then leads to stressful feelings which then associates with ever-increasing unrealistic thoughts feeding back in to a self-destructive loop.) Once we are able to start to get conscious and think about our thoughts and our emotions and start to consider what the pattern-match might be we can start to learn to take more control.

If we don’t get conscious with our thoughts and feelings and examine them with some understanding, we will find ourselves reacting. If we are not using our conscious brain effectively, then we are relying on the subconscious to deal with a situation. The subconscious is perfect for dealing with literal life-or-death situations, where survival is paramount but it is not great at dealing with the nuances and complexities of modern-day life. The subconscious only knows what it knows from every experience we have encountered, so if we want to stay calm, be in the moment, think clearly, change our behaviour, stop reacting, stop worrying, being fearful or angry – we need to engage the conscious brain.

The moment our subconscious perceives a threat in the environment, emotion and thought is triggered, and, if we are not careful, we will find ourselves behaving in survival mode – on alert, defending, attacking, fleeing, fighting or freezing. In this day and age, these reactions are rarely productive. Being in survival mode hijacks the conscious brain so that we are using our instincts to guide our behaviour rather than making conscious choices. The more we react in the same way, the more ingrained these behaviours become, the more the brain can pattern-match to these similar situations. It is also worth noting that, in this modern world, we see fearful and angry reactions around us a lot (especially through the media), far more than is appropriate or necessary, so being in survival mode becomes a normal way of viewing the world.

So, can we control our emotions? Yes, but we have to first become conscious of them. We have to try and understand them. We need to try and identify pattern-matches. We need to identify our thoughts and work back through IPET to the source. We need to get conscious with the process and then decide who we want to be, how we want to act, name our fears, identify and isolate our stresses and deal with them individually. Stress is often referred to as an all-encompassing experience (‘that must have been stressful’, ‘I’ve had a stressful day’, etc.) but stress always comes from specific fears, worries, doubts, discomfort, irritation, pressures, etc. so it is vital that we specify the stress and do what we can to minimise it and chip away at it. Ultimately, we need to try to eliminate each stress as best we can.

Stress Comes in Many Guises

If we wanted to be very simplistic, we could categorise emotions into two groups: emotions for survival and emotions for life. Imagining what life would have been like for human beings 30,000 years ago – livings in tribes, in caves and in tune with nature – can help us understand this better. We would have been strong, fit, active and knowledgeable about the ways of nature. We would have been highly attuned to our senses and to our own feelings. We would have had the wisdom that had enabled us to live and thrive in a harsh environment. By this time, we had evolved genetically to the same species that we are today. We had a much more advanced conscious brain than any other animal which allowed us to imagine. We were then able to learn from the past and plan for the future in a way far beyond the natural instincts of other mammals.

By this time we were creating art and more complex language. We were no longer just surviving day-to-day like other animals, we were starting to learn that there is so much more we can feel. We were starting to learn that we can enjoy life; we were starting to think beyond our animal nature and feel higher emotions. It is when we are feeling these higher, elevated emotions that we feel truly alive. There would have been times where it was necessary for us to be ‘on alert’, times when we would have had to fight or flee and then the rest of the time where we could settle, be at ease, be at peace and enjoy what life had to offer.

The emotions needed for fight-or-flight, including being ‘on alert’ in preparation and readiness to fight or flee are very different from the emotions of calm and ease. Once we knew we were safe, we had food, we had fire, there was no threat of invasion from another tribe – in other words, our needs were met in that moment – we could relax. Once we relaxed, we could think calmly and clearly, we could nurture the young, daydream, tell stories, make music, create art, think about ways we could make our lives more comfortable, think about improving the way we lived, etc. The contrast between being in ‘survival mode’ and being relaxed and at peace would have been very clear.

Modern-day life is very different from the way we lived thousands of years ago, before the agricultural revolution. Life is far more complex as the world has become more civilised – an inevitable consequence of having a conscious brain that can imagine, plan, learn, develop and improve. For about the last ten thousand years, different cultures and civilisations have fought for the best territory so their tribe could prosper. As already mentioned, the majority of the globe now has widely accepted borders and established cultures. The fight for territory has disappeared for most of us. The danger we would find ourselves in when having to hunt has also gone. Working out which way to go to find our prey to feed the tribe – and knowing that if we get it wrong we may starve – is no longer an issue. Knowing we could die if we break a bone or get an infected wound is no longer such a realistic worry. Surviving the harsh extremes of the weather is not a realistic concern for most of us. The emotions we needed for our survival are all still available to us, but have we learned to adapt our emotions to our changing environment?

Data shows that, even when taking into account the two world wars, death from violence has showed a continual decline over the centuries. Also, thanks to advances in technology and healthcare aimed to make our lives more stable and comfortable, human beings are living longer than ever. And yet, we seem unaware of the prosperous times in which we are living as we seem to encounter ‘stress’ on a daily basis in some form or another, whether personally or in others. As already mentioned, the hormones of stress are powerful and are designed to prepare us or help us best deal with life-threatening situations. The chemicals that are released in our bodies were only ever meant to be there in short bursts whilst the emergency was present. They were there to enable us to best deal with the threat so that we could return to peace. So, with all the improvements in our lives compared to previous decades or centuries, if we are living more peaceful lives than ever, how come our stress levels haven’t lowered in line with human advancements?

The key here is emotional intelligence. When we lived in nature, we needed to be in tune with our senses to best survive the harsh realities of life. We needed our emotions to guide us. With the end of the ice age, and the subsequent agricultural revolution, we started to settle in larger groups and take more control of nature through farming. With many more mouths to feed and children to raise, competition for the best territory then became more significant. Rather than living a hand-to mouth existence and being at the mercy of nature, we were now managing nature and thinking more long-term. We were now settling in one place and building structures to live in that would serve for many generations. The emotions we needed to guide us when living in nature to help us survive and live well in our tribe were starting to be felt in slightly different situations.

As society got larger, the notion of ‘tribe’ changed and became less clear cut. We still feel the importance of connecting with those most like us but we also now live alongside lots of other people who have come from other tribes. We now have to constantly assess the level of trust we can afford other people. Over the last ten thousand years, the world has gradually moved from a disorganised state of flux to being more ordered and settled. Systems of justice, law, order and government have become embedded into our society with the intention of moving to an ever greater state of security and peace. Every small change along the journey of society’s evolution has gradually moved us to greater sense of security and control over our lives but have we ever really stopped to look at the connection between our emotions and the facts of how much life has improved for us?

As society was evolving to it current state, in previous centuries, the threat of invasion or starvation would have been very real for many. Situations where needed to fight or flee for our own survival would have been an expected part of life. We needed the emotions of stress for those situations. However, as we were creating new ways of living, in ever larger groups, the need to civilise became essential. Living in large groups without a sense of order would mean we would have to be on alert all the time. The only way for us as individuals to feel secure was to create rules of behaviour, laws, consequences, systems to enforce the laws, rulers and governments to lead the society so we could all share one way of life. Because these changes to society happened slowly over centuries, there was no single point where people could stop and question whether the emotions they were experiencing were still appropriate.

The emotions of survival are still available to us but we are very rarely in a situations that require them. Because society’s move towards increasing peace and security has been so gradual, there has never been an obvious point in time where it became clear that the issue of our emotional intelligence needing addressing. It is becoming increasingly clear these days however, that many in civilised society have suffered from the effects of stress and many are suffering today. Helping people feel less stress first requires them to gain greater understanding and awareness of their emotions. Only with greater emotional intelligence can they begin to reassess how their thoughts, beliefs, knowledge and expectations are having harmful effects. The extent to which we experience stress, both within and outside ourselves, in modern society, goes completely against its original design. Our emergency response system is being triggered for the slightest of reasons and is being kept active for periods of time far in excess of what it was ever intended for. The repercussions of the misuse of this precious natural survival mechanism is having catastrophic effects at both an individual and a humanity-wide level.

The feeling of stress is on a scale. Most people acknowledge that they are stressed when they have become very stressed, when the feelings are very strong, but fail to acknowledge that there are lower levels of stress they feel. Either they are unaware of these low levels or they are so prevalent that they have become the norm. Most people have become so habituated to feelings of stress that it has become an automatic program. When there is nothing to stress about, something in the environment will trigger a pattern-match to remind people to feel stressed. This isn’t just happening in the brain, it is also happening in the body as the cells become habituated to the often-present hormones of stress, they create new receptor sites to deal with the excess chemicals circulating in the blood. When there is no stress, the cells that are now adapted to expect these chemicals, send signals back to the brain that there are not enough stress hormones in the body. Just like an addict to any substance, we can become addicted to our own stress hormones.

This shouldn’t be surprising because these are very powerful chemicals. Just a small amount of adrenaline and cortisol – two of the most well-known stress hormones – can give us a boost of energy and prepare us to run or fight for our lives. Releasing these chemicals into our internal environment on a regular basis easily becomes a habit. Habits that are very hard to break and become compulsive may well be termed addictions. I believe that much of society has developed an unconscious addiction to stress. I believe this society/world-wide problem is responsible for a lot of ill-health and daily misery. It is limiting people’s lives and stopping them from living a happier, more fulfilled life. It is negatively affecting relationships and driving feelings of pessimism where people focus on what is wrong rather than appreciating what they have.

Is there a solution? Is there a way out? I believe that lowering our own and hence society-in-general’s stress levels is the next step in human evolution. It was inevitable that our huge conscious brain, which separated us from other animals, would enable us to become the dominant animal on the planet. It was inevitable that it would separate us from our own nature as we created a world of evermore safety and comfort. It was inevitable that we would become used to each step of progress along the way and so come to expect it as the norm. As each generation gets used to increasing safety, comfort and technological efficiency, these advancements become seen as needs rather than luxuries. When luxuries become needs, we have higher expectations and become more easily uncomfortable when they are not met. That feeling of discomfort is what we call stress. It is a perception of our needs not being met. It was inevitable that society would get to this point.

It is now time to start to re-educate ourselves so that we can reap all the benefits of human advancement whilst learning how to return to living in our true nature of peace. Humanity is now in a position to start to learn that every discovery and invention was always there to be uncovered. Every advancement was a movement towards improving safety, comfort, efficiency and collective knowledge. Every advancement was designed to improve our lives. If we are at the most safe, comfortable, efficient and knowledgeable time in our history, surely we should be enjoying what our lives have to offer more than at any other time. With levels of anxiety and depression seemingly higher than ever, something is clearly not working. This is where emotional intelligence becomes essential and a much greater understanding of stress in all its guises.

As already mentioned, people will acknowledge when they are stressed. It is not unusual for people to expect to be stressed in given situations. It is not uncommon for people to encourage the notion of the normality of stress – that feeling stressed is the appropriate emotion for given situations. It is very normal to witness people in stressful states through the media and the various ways we get our news all seem to want to keep people in a state of fear as they perceive it helps them achieve greater sales or viewers. It is this high prevalence of stress around us that continually reinforces its normality as an expected way to live. It keeps us in a less intelligent state and so prevents us from seeing a better way to live. Our addiction to stress even makes us protective over maintaining our states of stress. We become defensive if anyone suggests we don’t need to be as stressed as we are. People only really come this realisation when things get so bad that they are forced to face the problem they have with stress. What they realise is that the baseline stress levels they have been accepting as normal for years need addressing.

For many people, reaching a point in their lives which forces them to stake stock of their stress levels, then helps them see that they have been living with excess stress for years and they now have to re-educate themselves on how they need to live from here on. They make changes to their lives that helps them avoid stressful situations, release pressure and get more joy in their lives. They learn to replace old feelings of fear and anger with feelings of calm, appreciation, gratitude, motivation, achievement, satisfaction and optimism. They move from being predominantly pessimistic to predominantly optimistic and they become more aware of feelings of stress at an earlier stage and at lower levels. They are then more able to take action to counteract their feelings of stress and learn more and more to be in control of their own minds and bodies and think and feel what they want, rather than be ruled by a habitual, subconscious response. They learn to move from living in survival to living in peace.

So recognising stress in all its forms would be useful to know. Remembering that what we are feeling can be separated into either emotions for survival or emotions for living. Knowing that these emotions exist on a scale, they are not simply on or off, they go from very mild to very strong so the earlier we can notice them, the more we can intervene and the better we can prevent them from getting stronger. So which emotions could we categorise as survival emotions and therefore become aware of as inappropriate? Without providing an exhaustive list, any emotion that focuses us on a ‘lack’, on a problem, a need not being met, a grievance, a frustration, a complaint, a regret, a bad feeling about ourselves is a survival emotion. We perceive a need not being met and so can’t rest and be at peace until it is. Generally, the primary emotion will be fear in some form which may then lead into some variation of anger.

It is vital here not to draw the wrong conclusions or misinterpret the message. In everyone’s life, there will always be problems that need solving, difficulties and challenges that need overcoming, upsetting situations that we have to get through. My point is that, we often make the problem or challenge much more difficult to overcome if we become stressed by it. We also find reasons to be stressed when it makes no sense. For most of modern-day life, the complexities we have to navigate require intelligence and clarity. This requires calmness – the very opposite of stress. Rethinking how we live in a busy world full of complexity and nuance is the challenge we all face. I believe there are very few people who are genuinely good at living with high emotional intelligence. We all have our own individual experiences that we pattern-match back to and find ourselves triggered. Becoming more self-aware is a life-long learning process and a journey we are all on.

It may help to group feelings of stress into the following different categories:

1) The fear spectrum: worried, troubled, anxious, fearful.

2) Pressure: time pressure; having to live up to others’ expectations; having to live up to one’s own expectations.

3) Worry about the past: fear of the repercussions of past mistakes; feelings of regret, remorse, guilt, shame, embarrassment, humiliation.

4) Worry about the future: fear of what is to come; feeling you are not going to be able to cope; feeling overwhelmed; things are going to be too difficult, too painful, catastrophic.

5) Doubt and confusion: unsure how to solve a problem; uncertain about what choice to make; unsure about other people; self-doubt.

6) The anger spectrum: frustration, annoyance, bitterness, anger, rage; wanting to deal with a threat.

7) Insecurity: over-protective, under threat, defensive, argumentative, having to be right, having to win, always knowing best, overly certain, opinionated, judgemental, critical.

8) Living in lack: pessimistic, cynical, complaining, moaning, bitter, dissatisfied, envious, greedy.

9) Isolation: loneliness, alienation, not belonging, feeling ignored, feeling unequal, undeserving, unloved, unlikeable, low sense of self-worth.

10) Lack of achievement: feeling useless, incompetent, life is meaningless, lacking purpose, no direction, bored, unfulfilled.

11) Physical discomfort: pain, hunger, thirst, tiredness, lethargy, etc.

There is much overlap between these categories but it may help us recognise stress in the many forms it takes. Also, many of the emotions above may be appropriate at the right time and place but many people, if not everyone, will recognise that they are experiencing these feelings or behaviours far too often, far too strongly and in situations where they are not necessary or helpful. Every uncomfortable feeling comes from a pattern-match and is designed to get our attention so we can think about whether we need to take action or not. The problem with modern-day stress is that the pattern-matches are not appropriate most of the time, the emotions are being acted on automatically and the thoughts are remaining unchallenged.

The more we can keep our stress levels down, the more intelligent we can be, the better our bodily systems function so the healthier we will be, the more peaceful we will feel and so the better our relationships with others will be. Overall, the more we can keep our stress levels down, the better our lives will be all round. This will also have the knock-on effect of our loved ones feeling more at ease because they feel that we are happier and so they don’t need to worry about us. If this understanding was to spread through society, the whole landscape of how we function as human beings can change. Greater numbers of individuals practising living with greater inner peace is the next step needed for humans, or humanity, to evolve.

Human Evolution

If we look back, we can imagine a time when we lived in nature, in tune with the rhythms and cycles of nature. We would have been adept at surviving the harsh cruel realities of nature. We would have had be in tune with ourselves, our senses – our own true nature – to stay alive. We would have been highly aware of our energy levels and we would have known how to conserve and best use our energy for maximum efficiency. We would not have wasted energy on pointless worrying, on misusing our imagination to fret about situations which weren’t real. The harshness of life was real enough and would have given us enough to think about.

Over thousands of years, that simplistic but harsh way of life has changed beyond recognition. We have used the conscious brains with which nature endowed us to gradually make life increasingly less harsh and move towards ever increasing levels of security and comfort. At the same time, we have gradually raised our beliefs about what we should expect from a normal life. As technology and means of communication have improved, people from different cultures and different parts of the world have been able to see lives that are very different from their own. This has then allowed them to imagine themselves living differently, in greater security and comfort.

This technology was always there to be discovered and developed, so it was inevitable that we would reach the point we are at today where people are aware of whether their human needs are being met and are prepared to take action to improve their situation. In this way, humanity has always been headed towards a more sustainable way of living in peace. Living with a sense of insecurity or discomfort is not sustainable, it is survival, and survival mode is a temporary state. Every action we take is to make ourselves feel better; it is to take us towards the state of peace that our minds and bodies naturally seek. ‘Peace’ is our natural state. We only hunt to satisfy our need to eat; we only fight to eliminate a threat and satisfy our need for security. Once our needs are met, we return to our natural state of peace.

The problem with modern-day living is that, in general, our habituation towards security and comfort has spoiled us. We have moved away from the harsh realities of nature but, rather than live in appreciation of what fruits humanity’s drive towards improvement has brought us, we tend to live more with a sense of lack, with a sense of not having enough, comparing ourselves to others who have more comfort or security. This feeling of not having enough puts us into survival mode, it means we do not have our needs met and so we feel stress accordingly. The feeling of stress is there to help us take action towards getting our needs met but the line between wants and needs has become murky so we can end up spending completely inappropriate amounts of time in survival mode and live with unhealthy levels of stress that the mind and body was never designed for.

We have sleep-walked into this state of affairs but it was always inevitable that human evolution would end up here. The moment our biology allowed us to become self-aware, the journey to where we are now, with hindsight, was always going to happen. The challenge for humanity now, at this crucial point in history where the planet that we rely on as our home is reaching a tipping point, is whether we can wake up in sufficient numbers to change our mindsets enough to save our world. Stress separates us and puts us in competition with each other. More than at any other time in history, and with ever increasing need, human beings need to learn to cooperate and live in harmony with each other and with nature. This is no small task, but it starts with us as individuals. We must begin by finding our own inner peace if we are to stand a chance for humanity to make the huge changes that are required of it.

If we can learn to get in tune with ourselves and our feelings we can raise our awareness and improve our understanding of why we feel the way we do. With greater understanding, we can learn better ways to manage our feelings so that they are more appropriate to the realities of a relatively comfortable and secure modern existence. If we can learn to keep our emotional temperature at a lower level we are avoiding entering into survival mode to an unsustainable level. This will allow us to think and see more clearly. This will allow us to judge more accurately how well our needs are being met and the action that is most appropriate. If we are learning to live with greater and greater levels of inner peace, this will prevent us from entering into unnecessary conflict with others. If others are not feeling under attack, they too have no reason to attack back and so can lower their own defences. This is how, through learning to be at peace ourselves, and without even trying to change anyone else, others are able to find more peace.

If we can learn to stop living excessively and unnecessarily in survival mode we can start to see that our needs are far more met than we may realise. If we can change our mindset from living in lack to living in appreciation, from competition to cooperation, from getting our own needs met to trying to get everyone’s needs met, from living as separate tribes in separate territories to one tribe on one planet, only then can we contemplate the huge-scale changes that we all have to make together.

We know we are heading towards a cliff edge in terms of the planet’s ability to sustain humanity. We know that awareness is increasing of the need to major change but there is an enormous amount of denial and blaming others. These two sentiments are symptomatic of survival mode thinking. There is so much fear about taking difficult decisions and making necessary changes because of the current possible repercussions. If more people felt they belonged to one tribe living in one home, if more people felt at peace with themselves and that they weren’t in competition with others, they would feel that we are all equal and would understand the importance of everyone getting their needs met. If everyone is getting their needs met, then they can be at peace. If they can be at peace, they don’t need to compete for their survival and so can cooperate. The only way to solve the problems facing humanity’s very existence is through agreeing together what has to be done.

Once we all agree on the way we all need to live, so that life on this planet is sustainable, and that every human being has to be considered equal regardless of where they happen to have been born or which culture they happen to have been born into, then we need to make the necessary changes at the same time. We need to make the changes through a genuine desire to help each other and humanity survive into our next phase. If we learn to come together more as one race – the human race – through peace, harmony and cooperation, in sufficient numbers we will be moving into a new phase of human evolution. For such a paradigm shift to occur, the importance of the shift has to be felt deeply. When the very need for survival, as a planet, drives the new understanding for peace, the motivation will embed the learning into humanity’s collective consciousness and genuine change will take place.

Unfortunately, this means that we have to reach the precipice and look down into the horror of where we are heading before this realisation can truly hit home. If we are at a point in history that was always going to come, then the next phase is just as inevitable. Whilst we watch the world become increasingly destroyed, it seems inevitable that we become more distressed and fearful of our future. I am suggesting that this fear and stress is the very opposite of what the world requires. We need peace, cooperation and coherence amongst people more than ever. In the same way that we need everyone to do their bit when faced with a larger challenge, the principle task for all of us as individuals, is to contribute peace to humanity’s collective consciousness. This starts with ourselves and is no small feat.

Working on ourselves every day to eliminate stresses and cultivate elevated emotions of joy and appreciation is very different from what we may be witnessing going on around us. Doing this work with genuine sincerity of feeling is the work we are aiming for. We are not aiming at pretence, or fake feelings of happiness, this has to be real. Through practice and continually reminding ourselves of how we should feel in this modern-day world, of all the comforts and pleasures that are there for us to enjoy, of how lucky we are to be living the lives that we have, the more we can nurture a sense of genuine inner peace. As we train our brains to stay with elevated emotions rather than feeling we should be living in survival, the brain will come to see this as the new normal. If we can change ourselves for the better, we are doing our bit for humanity. If we care about the Earth we live on, we need to learn to live well with ourselves first. Only then, does humanity stand a chance of solving the existential crisis we are inevitably moving towards.