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Let's Talk About: Emotions

Ah those pesky emotions. We all have them, we all need them, and we all try to push them away. So why do we even have emotions? What use are they to humans? And what can we do about it?

There's no single definition of an emotion, nor a scientific consensus on what emotions are or mean. Emotions are thought to be psychological states that are brought on by changes in our environment. They are associated with thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and moods. They produce a number of changes to our physiology, cognition, and behaviors. They can be positive or negative.

To put it simply, emotions are information. We get information from the world around us, and translate it into thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Emotions are one of the many ways our brains try to keep us safe.

Many of us try to push aside our emotions. We've been taught that emotions are either "good" or "bad" and that we shouldn't feel those bad emotions. We all have ways of ignoring our emotions. And we all have times when our emotions cause us to think or act in certain ways. When we get angry, we yell or fight. When we are happy, we might smile and laugh. When we feel sad, we might cry, or avoid people. We're often told to "bottle it up" or "smile through the pain." In many different ways throughout our childhood (and adulthood) we are told that emotions are a sign of weakness, or should be hidden. We blame our emotions for how we behave.

What if we could take a step back from all of this, and only think of our emotions as a source of information? What if we could nonjudgmentally take in that information and figure out what to do with it?

Think of it this way. Our brains and bodies are evolutionarily designed to keep us safe and alive. Emotions are an integral, primitive (meaning, there from the beginning) part of that. When our brains and bodies sense danger, they turn on signals throughout the body. One of those signals is an emotion. If our brains sense a threat, they'll turn on fear. This may feel like anxiety, or heart beating, or getting sweaty. If the body senses safety, it'll turn on happiness. We might feel calm, or enjoyment. A lot of this happens without our recognizing it. Our brains process out a lot of information that we never "receive" as thoughts, but may experience as emotions or body changes. For instance, we have all been in that situation where we sudden feel like something bad is about to happen. That's our survival instinct coming in, but we might not actually be in danger. We might have heard something that our brain registered as threat, but didn't process through as an actual sound we consciously recognized. Our brain flips on the fight or flight response, and we feel fear without understanding why.

We also live in a totally different world than we did at the beginning of our existence. The threats we faced in those days are not part of our daily problems now. For instance, most of us aren't in true danger of being eaten by a predator. But our safety system is still working on that basic level of "keep me safe" and doesn't understand the difference in threats. This can lead to some very interesting and uncomfortable emotional systems.

We need to stop labeling emotions as "good" or "bad" and remember that emotions are just part of our safety system, giving us information and trying to get us to act certain ways. If we can take a step back from an emotion, and say to it "I can tell you're trying to get my attention, what is going on in my world right now that I feel this way," we can start on our path to healing.

It's a mistaken view that goal of therapy is to "get rid of" emotions. Instead, we need to let our emotions tells us what's up, and then learn to deal with that information in ways that will improve our lives.

If you're interested in learning more, reach out to schedule an appointment!

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