In our previous article, What is Mental Health: Part I, we explored how emotions are signals from our body, similar to hunger or the urge to pee.
We can’t control whether our body sends these signals — they’re automatic — and these signals push us to act. Just as hunger pushes us to eat, fear might push us to run away.
Signals push us by creating sensations in our body — often uncomfortable ones — and by changing how we see the world. Grocery shopping when we’re hungry makes everything look appealing, and feeling scared might make us think there’s something dangerous, even when there isn’t!
Although our body sends these signals automatically, we may not always want to go along with what they push us to do. And we don’t have to. We can resist the signal’s push — but, it requires effort. The stronger the emotional push, the more effort that’s required to resist it.
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 will learn our body sends emotions to help us survive and thrive. Both positive and negative emotions are important and can be helpful. We will also learn that even though our body sends emotions that push us in helpful ways, sometimes it sends an emotion that is stronger than needed for the situation. 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. These steps can help us better manage our emotions when they come up.
(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, let’s think about hunger and taste. Hunger pushes us to eat food for nutrients and energy, which we need to survive. On the other hand, taste helps us navigate different foods by pushing us to avoid rotten or poisonous food. But taste also helps define what foods we like and dislike.
Emotions work similarly. They help us survive by pushing us to safety. They also help us navigate the world by giving us information about what’s good and bad for us, which also informs us of what we like and dislike.
Here are some examples of how emotions help us survive:
Fear keeps us safe from danger. For example, if we’re walking through the woods and hear what sounds like a big animal rustling the bushes ahead, fear might forcefully push us to run away.
Anger helps us protect ourselves, our family and our resources. For example, if someone is trying to steal our food that we need to survive, anger may push us to defend ourselves.
Positive emotions, like excitement, push us to explore new places to find new resources, which can increase chances of survival.
In all of these examples, our body sends emotions to help us survive by pushing us to interact with our environment. People, like friends, family, or others in our community, are also an important part of our environment. Humans are social animals. Our prehistoric ancestors couldn’t survive on their own, and we still rely on other humans to survive. Social connections are important, so when our relationships change, our body often triggers survival-like emotions. This is because our body reacts to changing relationships like our chances of survival have changed. Here are some examples:
Positive emotions like calmness and joy help us connect with people to build stronger social bonds and cooperate. Working together with others can increase our chances of survival.
Sadness can indicate the loss of a social connection. Sadness might help us recover from loss by pushing us to seek comfort in others. Sadness may also indicate to others that we need help, which can strengthen existing relationships and build new ones.
For example, after a good friend moves away, sadness might push us to call our other friends to hang out more. If we’re feeling sadness that strongly pushes us to isolate ourselves, our friends might notice and come over to comfort us.
In addition to helping us survive, emotions tell us what’s good and bad for us, which helps us thrive as we navigate our environment. They also inform us of what we like and dislike.
Here are some examples of how emotions help us thrive:
If we have to give a presentation in front of a group and are afraid we won’t know what to say, fear may push us to prepare ahead of time.
Similarly, if we feel anger at a project partner because they took credit for work they didn’t do, this emotion might inform us to not work with this person again.
Positive emotions can also give us useful information. When we feel positive emotions during an activity, the pleasant sensation makes us want to do the activity again. So, if we feel happy and excited the first time we play chess, we’re likely to want to play again and maybe even turn it into a hobby.
Or, if we feel positive emotions around someone, like joy or attraction, we’re more likely to want to hang out with that person again and maybe pursue a friendship.
(2) Signals are stronger and fade slower when our survival is at risk.
One of the main functions of signals like hunger and fear is to help us survive. The more our survival is at risk, the stronger the signal and push from our body will be.
For example, if we skip lunch, our body will push us to eat by sending the uncomfortable sensation of hunger and make us think more about food.
But, if we’re stranded on an island and go a week without eating, our survival is at stake! In this dire situation, the push from hunger will be extreme — the sensations will be painful, and it will be difficult to think about anything other than food. We may even dream about eating food! This is our body desperately pushing us to eat.
Emotional pushes are also stronger when there is greater risk to our survival.
For example, if we’re in a slightly scary situation — like if we see a lightning storm coming — we might receive a small, uncomfortable push to go inside.
But, if we’re in a situation where our survival is threatened — like if we see several violent tornadoes heading for our house — a push from fear might be extremely strong, maybe painful. All we might think about is how to get away from that situation. Again, this is our body pushing us to survive.
The more our life is threatened — for example, if the tornado destroyed our house, and we thought we might die — the stronger the emotional reaction and the longer it takes for the emotions to fade. We can expect strong emotions to be around pretty consistently for days or weeks afterward. This is because our body keeps sending the emotional signal for a while in case we’re not yet safe.
Above, we also discussed how our body treats the loss of social connections like threats to our survival. This is why we can have very strong, overwhelming emotional pushes when we face a loss, like when someone close to us dies or we experience a breakup. When a social connection breaks, our body responds as if we’ve lost a limb or had a physical injury. This is why we feel strong emotions as if our survival is at risk.
(3) Emotions err on the side of survival
When our physical safety is clearly at risk, like if we’re face-to-face with a lion or if someone is threatening us, our body knows to send the strongest possible push for escape or defense.
However, most situations are less clear, so our body has to estimate how strong an emotional push should be. In many cases, our body sends an emotional push that is appropriate for the situation. But sometimes our body misjudges the risk, and when this happens, it will err on the side of survival. This means sending a stronger push or keeping emotions on for longer than is necessary to keep us safe.
A similar mistake our body makes is allergies. Allergies happen when our immune system attacks dust or cat dander as if they are dangerous germs. Even though dust and cat dander aren’t dangerous, our body errs on the side of keeping us safe.
Nearly all of us have emotional reactions that are stronger or longer than a situation requires! Here are some examples of times when the emotion is not aligned with the situation:
Some of us feel fear when danger is unlikely, for example, heading downstairs to a dark basement in our house to do the laundry. Our body exaggerates the risk, so it sends a strong push to run away that’s not aligned with the situation.
Some of us often feel very angry while driving (road rage) and receive a strong push to yell or drive aggressively, even when people in other cars are not attacking us. We may still be angry hours later.
Some of us feel so excited about a project that we don’t consider the fact that we don’t have the experience to handle it.
Emotional reactions to social situations can also be stronger than necessary. For example:
For some of us, social fear is so great that just ordering at a restaurant or coffee shop causes a strong push from fear to run away.
Some of us feel very sad when someone says something slightly critical. Part of the push of sadness may be to give up or isolate ourselves. We may then continue to feel strong sadness and think about the criticism for the rest of the week.
Remember, we don’t choose to have strong emotional reactions that do not align with the situation — our body automatically sends these signals to try and help us. Sometimes it sends pushes that are stronger than needed for the situation. As we discuss later, there are ways to change these reactions. It just takes time and effort.
(4) Survival - but at what cost?
Emotional signals that are stronger than necessary for the situation can be okay. Sometimes we may even play with our body’s automatic signals for fun, like when we ride a roller coaster or watch a horror movie. In these situations, we’re completely safe, so these signals aren’t necessary, but some of us find it fun to experience uncomfortable signals in a controlled situation (and some of us don’t!).
Most of the time, when uncomfortable emotions like fear, anger, or sadness are stronger than the situation requires, these unaligned signals cause suffering and make life harder. Feeling intense, uncomfortable fear just to do the laundry in the basement isn’t needed to keep us safe, and it’d be easier if we didn’t have to feel it so strongly.
Emotional signals that are stronger than necessary can also push us to miss out on positive experiences. For example, if we avoid restaurants or coffee shops because of our social fears, we miss out on connecting more with friends or making new relationships.
Unaligned signals also push us to do things that can get us into trouble. Road rage could cause us to get into an accident or legal trouble. Too much excitement may lead us to make risky investments, and we could end up losing money.
So even though emotions are useful for helping us survive and thrive, emotions that are stronger than necessary can make life harder — they often lead us astray, prevent us from thriving, and drive us towards dangerous situations.
So it’s not easy! We need to listen to our emotions to navigate the world and thrive, but our body can also make errors and send emotions that do not align with the situation. For this reason, we can’t just follow along with our emotional pushes in every situation.
(5) How can we better understand and manage our emotions?
Emotions can be strong, automatically pushing us before we realize what we’re feeling! Emotions change our thinking so that any emotion we’re having seems appropriate even when it’s 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?
Although we experience emotions every day, noticing emotions and their pushes can be difficult if it’s not something we’re used to doing. It can be tempting to ignore the emotions and the uncomfortable sensations they bring. Unfortunately, ignoring emotions won’t make them go away. Paying attention to an emotion and feeling the uncomfortable sensation allows us to see and accept the push for what it is — an automatic signal. Then, we can choose the best course of action for a situation.
This is certainly not easy, so here is a way to think about it.
When you feel an emotion:
- NOTICE the emotion’s push. First, if we are in a safe place, we have to notice, asking questions like, What sensations do we feel in our body? What are our thoughts? What action are we being pushed to take? Take time to pay close attention to the sensations and the thoughts, whether they are pleasant or uncomfortable. The emotion is a signal from your body trying to help you survive and thrive. We don’t have to change the emotion or push it away. Just observe the signals.
2. INVESTIGATE the sensations, changed thinking, and the behavior we’re being pushed to do. Is the emotion (and the push) stronger than the situation requires? Is it helpful? Because emotions can change how we think, our reactions almost always seem aligned and appropriate for the situation even when they aren’t. It’s often hard to judge on your own. Talking to other people, particularly a therapist, can help us identify when the emotion is stronger than necessary. Also, talking it through can often make us feel better. We can also investigate whether the push is helpful. Is the emotion pushing us away from positive experiences or pushing us into trouble? Talking to other people can also aid in identifying whether the emotional push is helpful.
3. COMMIT to a course of action. If an emotion is out of alignment or not helpful, commit to resisting the push. If we think the signal is informative or helpful, follow the push. We need to commit because if we decide to resist the push, it’s going to take effort. And if the push is really strong, it might take a ton of effort to resist. It might not always be clear which action to choose, but fully committing can help us learn better how that action makes us feel.
Each step is effortful, but like learning a language, it becomes easier and less effortful with practice. With repeated practice, we can get better at recognizing when emotions are not aligned with the situation, which makes it easier to resist unhelpful pushes.
(6) We can tune emotional signals with effort and time.
The more we practice (1) noticing our emotional pushes, (2) investigating whether they are aligned or helpful, and (3) committing to a course of action, the better we’ll get at each step. Additionally, getting better at this process can actually change our emotional reactions. The pushes are automatic, so we can’t choose which push we receive or how strong it is in the moment. But, over longer periods of time, by putting effort into repeatedly practicing these steps, we can teach our body to send emotional signals that are more aligned with the situation.
The process of changing our emotional reactions is like making our heart healthier. Our heart works automatically — we don’t get any choice in how it beats. We can’t strengthen our heart in a few minutes or hours, but with regular exercise and a healthy diet over weeks or months, we can improve its health. The same is true for emotional pushes.
For example, speaking in front of a large audience often causes a push from fear to avoid the situation — it’s a very strong push for some. But, if we do it anyway, over and over again (even if it’s not perfect), the push from fear will get weaker and weaker. In time, it may even go away completely. This process is our body learning that nothing life-threatening or terrible happens when we confront our fears and that an overly strong push from fear is not necessary.
There may be emotional reactions that we know are out of alignment with the situation and that we want to change. For example, say we want to reduce our road rage, which pushes us to yell at other drivers and drive right up behind their cars. We have to put ourselves in a position to have this emotional reaction — so we need to go driving. Then, when someone cuts us off, we have to:
- Notice the sensations in our body, the changed thinking, and what anger is pushing us to do (but not do it!). This is often the hardest step.
- Investigate whether this is an appropriate reaction. Since we’ve already decided that this is a reaction we want to change because it’s not appropriate or helpful, this step should be easier than when we aren’t sure whether it’s appropriate.
- Commit to driving slowly instead of yelling at the driver who cut us off.
If we are able to practice noticing, investigating, and committing to resist the push, we will find over time that the pushes from anger lessen as our body re-learns its reactions. It may even fade completely. Importantly, we cannot control how quickly the push fades or whether it eventually goes away completely. All we can do is put in effort to put our body in a position to learn. This process works for all of our emotions.
Frequently having strong, uncomfortable emotions that are out of alignment can drain our energy and make it harder to do everyday tasks (we’ll talk about this more in Part III). However, our emotions are changeable, so there is always hope.
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. When it’s off, it instead sends a push that’s stronger than necessary.
- Our body erring on the side of survival increases our chances of staying alive, but this 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 three steps that can help. Notice, Investigate, and Commit. Each step is effortful, but the more we practice, the easier it gets.
- By practicing these steps, we can fine-tune our emotional reactions. We can’t completely control how our reactions might change, but we can put our body in a position to learn and hope that it adapts.