Feeling emotions is part of human experience and it is essential for us to feel them as they navigate us through the away from danger towards safety. And here is how and why?
Ultimately and fundamentally emotions are safeguarding us. I can feel your disagreement with me and I am guessing you are thinking about how unpleasant and unsafe the feelings of fear anger, guilt and shame are to you. And of course, you are right – they are!
As the neuroscientists are taking on the mammoth task to understand how our complex human brain works, they have made some significant discoveries that help us to understand our emotions.
The birthplace of our emotions is in the part of our brain called amygdala – this part of the brain is located near the base of our brain. It evolved in the animal kingdom as far back as in reptiles hence it’s also dubbed as the reptilian brain. Amygdala undertakes a very important task – survival. It’s highly perceptive and reactive brain to anything indicative of threat or danger. Once it’s activated it sends distress signal through noradrenalin release activating nervous and limbic systems to prep our bodies for flight, fight or freeze responses. We can identify the physical symptoms of it happening, like – shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating, tension building in muscles. This genius response has allowed our ancestors to survive predators and treacherous environments. This function and systematic response evolved and perfected over thousands of years as we lived the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Our brains have not yet had the thousands of years to evolve and adapt to the lifestyles we are living today. Many of the threats our amygdala is detecting are societal ones. But about that in a moment.
The brain and body responses to threat, that I just described. We sense it and call them emotions – fear and anger. Anger is the emotion that we feel or the body responding – is to fight. There is a massive amount of energy deposited in our nervous and muscular systems to fight the predator/attacker to ensure victory and survival and is so powerful, hence the emotion is so hard to regulate and master. Notice I am not using words such as suppress or abolish.
We absolutely need anger as we survive, live, and thrive.
Similarly, the reaction to run or flee from danger is to outrun the perceived danger and to execute this action successfully, again, requires a lot of energy. You most likely have felt this feeling and have made a run from something before in your life as you have felt fear.
The other response of fear is freezing or stiffening of body. This tactic worked to avoid predators’ detection of us if we detected them first – this is where we hold our breaths and stay as still as we can while our body is getting ready to fight or run at the same time just in case they do. This we recognise as panic attack that our bodies execute in our modern environment and life as supposed to hunting and gathering amongst other animals.
When we involuntary scream when we are startled, this reaction again has evolved as automatic alarm signal to alert others of imminent danger. Others are important as we are species of animals that live and survive in packs. Or as we like to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animals – humans survive and live in tribes. J The nature of us is clear to see and hard to deny as we are still unfortunately conducting wars between ourselves for territory and resources. This can be seen on an individual as well as a national or global level.
So, we evolved as pack animals, for that we need to navigate social interactions with another. The most primitive feelings, we have, to navigate and avoid danger coming from our own are guilt and shame. Feeling of guilt is associated with feeling bad for doing something that the pack disapproves, or it goes against their goals and agendas. Shame is a feeling we have when we sense danger of being excluded from the care and protection of the pack/tribe.
And what about sadness? Sadness is where we acknowledge loss of something. The strength of the feeling is usually proportional to how important the lost object was to us.
So why do these feelings I talked about feel so bad? I guess by now you know the answer to it yourself. It’s meant to feel that way to create urgency to act upon it. If in dangerous situations we would feel happy and complaisant we would fall an easy prey to anyone who intends us harm. These shunned emotions we all feel as we navigate through our lives seeking safety and nourishment, we encounter danger too. And these emotions we start sensing in response come in the perfect package of information about the danger and energy to act on it.
The good news is that—despite how overwhelming and all-consuming our emotions can feel—help is available for you. The expert counsellors at Horizon have years of experience supporting people in understanding their emotions and how they feel in the Plymouth and surrounding area, and we are here to help you too. We recognise that, despite the umbrella term and characteristics, each individual feelings and emotions are unique, which is why we work together to find a solution that will work for you. Finding support, understanding the neuroscience, identifying relaxation techniques, engaging in cognitive behaviour therapy, and practicing mindfulness are all ways that the professionals at Horizon Plymouth can help to mitigate the rollercoaster of our emotions and feelings. If you or someone you know can relate to these scenarios, reach out to Horizon Plymouth today to begin seeking clarity and mental wellbeing.
Ilze Zarovska – Counsellor, Horizons Counselling