Part 1: Emotions: What good are they anyway?

“Life can get you down, so I just numb the way it feels. I drown it with a drink and out-of-date prescription pills.” Save Myself by Ed Sheeran

“Rather than being a luxury, emotions are a very intelligent way of driving an organism toward certain outcomes.” Antonio Damasio

It seems we spend a lot of energy trying to escape painful emotions. Trying to numb ourselves, we may  shop, eat, drink alcohol, or use substances, or distract ourselves with busyness, avoiding the discomfort of feeling sadness, grief, disappointment, rejection and other painful feelings.  We may wonder why we must suffer, as we try to dismiss, avoid, or stuff the feelings that arise when we are hurting.

The truth is, emotions are essential in that they give us important messages. Whether the emotion is joy, sadness, or disgust, they contain important information for us to pay heed. For example, if you have ever taken a bite of food that has gone “bad”, felt disgust and then spit it out, you may be able to appreciate that the disgust is “wired in” to keep us from getting sick. Or if a growling dog with a foaming mouth and bared teeth is running toward you, fear tells you to “get to safety, dangerous dog ahead!” Likewise, if you are feeling angry, it may be that an injustice has occurred, or you may feel misunderstood or slighted.  Emotions serve a purpose. “Emotion and bodily sensations often reveal us to ourselves. They contain biological wisdom and communicate what’s important to us and to those around us”- Diana Fosha.

image of emoji faces showing various emotions

Numbing only the painful feelings is not an option, either. It is impossible to “turn off” the uncomfortable or painful feelings without shutting down the pleasant ones as well. Feeling joy, surprise and delight are also numbed along with sadness, fear and anger. “All the stuff that keeps you from feeling the scary emotions? They also keep you from feeling the good ones. You have to shake those off. You have to become vulnerable”- Brene Brown.  And, when we disconnect from our own emotions, we may also disconnect with others, making relationships distant or strained. Have you ever known anyone that you would describe as “cold” or “heartless”? I wonder if they had lost touch with their feelings and “shut down” so much they were left hard to reach.

So, what are the primary, or core, emotions? Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, and excitement - and each has specific physical sensations that go with them. Think about how your body felt the last time you felt joy or excitement! What did you notice? It’s certainly different from the sensations you have when you feel fear or sadness. Begin to notice your body when you feel upset or delighted, and you will become more aware of the differences in sensations associated with each.

Sometimes, emotions feel intense and we may not know the best way to cope with such powerful feelings, leading to avoidance as discussed above. It may be helpful at those times to remind ourselves that feelings change- they come in waves and the intensity will decrease. It is also helpful to be curious, asking ourselves questions such as “what is this feeling, can I put a name to this emotion?” and being curious about the source of the emotion- what led up to feeling this way? It is important to focus on ourself- instead of blaming someone for “making me” feel angry, realizing that “I felt disrespected or dismissed” will lead to greater self-understanding and also will make communication about it more effective if choosing to address the matter with someone.

Dealing with overwhelming emotions can be difficult, even scary sometimes. Growing up, we are not always taught effective ways to cope no matter how loving and nurturing our parents may have been. In the next blog post, the focus will be on healthier ways to cope with feelings instead of avoiding them.