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. 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 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 being met or not. The feeling may either be pleasant or unpleasant. 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 concluded 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. You get the point?!
So, what does every human being need to thrive and be healthy:
- Sufficient physical comfort
- 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
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 possibly 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. 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, 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.
50,000 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, make music, 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 and preparedness was necessary to sustain focus.
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 have access to our full intelligence, we can place our attention easily wherever we choose. Emotions 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 a 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 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 uncomfortable feelings that the conscious mind is not paying enough attention to. Our conditioning, in modern society, tends towards ignoring, avoiding, struggling through, reducing and eliminating discomfort. For example, much of our healthcare system seems to focus on eliminating symptoms rather than getting to the root cause. This may be fine at one level but only serves as a temporary solution. Feelings that are trying to tell us something will keep coming back if we don’t listen to them, and will have to become stronger until we are forced to pay attention.
Modern western society, as a whole, is not very skilled at dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Two phrases come to mind 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. 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.
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 on someone else whose immediate needs are greater than our own. 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 to the needs of others according to the situation we are currently in.