Our previous article, What is Mental Health: Part I, we explored how emotions are signals from our body, similar to hunger, and they push us to act by being uncomfortable sensations and changing how we think.
We also discussed how we can resist the signal’s push to act — but, it requires effort.
The previous article mostly focused on uncomfortable negative emotions. Positive emotions also push us in similar ways.
Positive emotions are automatic, pleasant sensations sent by our body that push us to act, often by engaging with the world or people around us. For example, the pleasant sensation of happiness when someone does something nice for us might push us to be generous to someone else.
But WHY do we have emotions in the first place? Why do our bodies send us signals like hunger and fear?
In Part II, we learn that our body sends positive and negative emotions to help us survive and thrive. But, sometimes our body sends emotions that are stronger than needed for the situation, which can be unhelpful. It can be hard to tell whether our body is sending an emotion that is stronger than needed, and so we will learn some steps for figuring it out, which can help us better manage our emotions.
(1) Emotions help us survive and thrive
Signals from our body (and our brain is part of our body!) are necessary to keep us alive and to navigate the world around us.
For example, hunger pushes us to eat food to survive. Taste helps us navigate different foods by pushing us to avoid rotten or poisonous food. Taste also defines which foods we like and dislike.
Emotions work similarly. They help us survive by pushing us to safety. They also help us thrive by giving us information about what’s good and bad for us, which also informs us of what we like and dislike.
Examples of how emotions help us survive are:
Fear keeps us safe from danger. If we’re walking through the woods and it sounds like a big animal is close, fear forcefully pushes us to run away.
Anger helps us protect ourselves, our family and our resources. If someone is stealing our food, which we need to survive, anger pushes us to defend our resources.
Positive emotions, like excitement, push us to explore new places to find new resources, which can increase chances of survival.
Our emotions also react to our social relationships. Our prehistoric ancestors couldn’t survive on their own, and we still rely on other people to survive. So when important relationships are added or subtracted, our body triggers strong emotions, as if our chances of survival have changed. For example:
Positive emotions like calmness and joy help us build stronger social bonds and cooperate, which increases our chances of survival.
Sadness might help us recover from loss by pushing us to seek comfort in others. After a good friend moves away, sadness might push us to seek comfort in our other friends, strengthening our social bonds with them.
Emotions also inform us what’s good and bad for us and what we like and dislike, which helps us thrive as we navigate our environment.
Examples of how emotions help us thrive are:
If we’re afraid an audience will hate our presentation (and us), fear pushes us to prepare ahead of time.
When a co-worker takes credit for work they didn’t do, anger informs us to not work with this person again.
When we feel positive emotions during an activity, the pleasant sensation makes us want to do the activity again. So, if we feel excited when we play chess, we’ll want to play again.
(2) Signals are stronger and fade slower when our survival is at risk.
The main reason for signals like hunger and fear is to push us to survive. The more our survival is at risk, the stronger the push our body sends.
For example, if we haven’t eaten in a few hours, our body sends the sensation of hunger to push us to eat.
But if we’re stranded on an island and go a week without food, the sensation from hunger is painful and we can’t think clearly, which is our body desperately pushing us to eat.
Emotional pushes are also stronger when there is greater risk to our survival.
For example, when we see a lightning storm coming, we receive a small, uncomfortable push from fear to go inside.
But when we see several violent tornadoes heading for our house, our survival is threatened! Fear is painful and we can’t think clearly as our body strongly pushes us to survive.
The stronger the emotional reaction, the longer it takes for the emotions to fade. If we go through a situation where our survival is threatened, we can expect to have strong emotions around for days or weeks afterward.
Because our body treats the loss of social connections like threats to our survival, when we face a loss, like a death or breakup, our body treats it like we lost a limb and sends a strong survival push.
(3) Emotions err on the side of survival
When our survival is clearly at risk, it’s easy for our body to detect the threat and send the strongest possible push to escape or defend.
But most situations aren’t clear, so our body has to estimate how strong an emotional push should be. Often, our body sends a push appropriate for the situation. But sometimes it misjudges the risk, errs on the side of survival and sends a stronger push than necessary to keep us safe.
A similar mistake our body makes is allergies. Allergies happen when our immune system attacks cat dander as if it’s dangerous germs. Even though dander isn’t dangerous, our body errs on the side of survival.
Nearly all of us have emotional reactions that are stronger or longer than a situation requires! Here are some examples:
We’re deathly afraid of our basement, even though it’s completely safe.
We get extremely angry while driving, even though no one is attacking us.
We get so excited, we lead a project without the experience to handle it.
Many emotional reactions that are stronger than necessary happen in social situations. For example, we can get extremely sad when we hear a slightly critical remark.
Our body sends emotions to help us, but sometimes it’s off. But, as we discuss in Part III, even though we don’t choose to have reactions that are stronger than necessary, there are ways we can change them.
(4) Survival — but at what cost?
Emotional signals that are stronger than necessary for the situation can be okay, but many times these unaligned signals cause us to suffer without helping us. Being afraid of the basement doesn’t help us. It just makes us suffer every time we do the laundry!
Negative emotions that are stronger than necessary can push us to avoid positive experiences or get us into trouble, such as when road rage leads to an accident.
So even though emotions are useful because they help us survive and thrive, emotions that are stronger than necessary can make life harder, and lead us astray.
It’s not easy! We need to listen to our emotions to navigate the world and thrive, but our body can send emotions that don’t align with the situation. So, we can’t just follow every emotion.
Because they’re automatic, emotions push us before we realize what we’re feeling. And they change our thinking so that they always seem appropriate even when they’re stronger than necessary. Noticing the emotion we’re experiencing is the first step to deciding if its push is useful. After all, how can we know if a push is useful if we aren’t aware that it’s pushing us?
Noticing can also include taking time to pay close attention to the sensations in our body, which is the emotional signal from our body. We don’t have to change it or push it away. Just observe it and many times, it will fade on its own.
The second step is to investigate whether following the push would help us thrive or the push is stronger than necessary and following it would be unhelpful. This can be hard to figure out. Talking to other people or a therapist can help.
The third step is to commit to a course of action. If an emotion is out of alignment or not helpful, we need to commit because resisting the push will take effort.
In Part III, we expand on these steps to help us better understand how we can better manage our emotions and even tune our automatic reactions so they more aligned with a situation (hint: we have to commit to resisting the push repeatedly). But first, we’ll learn about how emotions can be so strong, they can make us sick.
End of Part II
- Emotions are necessary for us to survive and thrive.
- They are stronger and take longer to fade when our survival is at risk.
- Our body usually sends an emotional push appropriate for the situation. But when it’s off, it sends a push that’s stronger than necessary.
- Our body erring on the side of survival increases our chances of staying alive, but has costs. Negative emotions that are stronger than necessary cause unneeded suffering. They can push us away from positive experiences and get us into trouble.
- Emotions guide us and help us thrive, but they can also lead us astray. It’s hard to know which is which! We recommend noticing and investigating our reactions in order to know when to follow our emotional pushes or resist them.
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Mental Design Institute is a nonprofit organization creating simple, clear, and scientifically informed ways to better understand mental health. We aim to reduce stigma and empower individuals through education.