Why won’t my brain just let me relax? Why do I have such a short fuse? Why do I feel so sad? I wish I could just pull myself up by the emotional bootstraps and get happy!
These are some of the most common questions my therapy clients ask. And they’re all thoughts I’ve had about my own emotions. What we’re really saying is, “Negative emotions are bad. I want to get rid of them.” And no wonder! Fear twists our stomachs, anger makes us feel out of control, and sadness is such a downer. Sometimes, these emotions can seem so powerful that we feel like victims of their relentless grasp.
So why do we have them? Why do our brains play such cruel tricks on us? And how can we avoid having negative emotions?
Are Negative Emotions Bad?
Let’s start by questioning our assumptions for a moment. Are negative emotions all bad? Should we really try to get rid of them? After all, we figure that thumbs are useful because we evolved to have them over millions of years, and that tails are not because we evolved to lose them over time. So, if negative emotions have stuck around this long, shouldn’t there be some good reason to have them?
This week, we will bust some myths about anger, deconstruct fear, and learn to appreciate sadness. I’ll also give you one “golden rule” on how to handle these emotions in a healthy and productive way.
Your stomach clenches. Your muscles tense. Your heart starts to pound. Your whole body is on high alert, with every hair standing on end. Your palms get sweaty and your fingertips tingle.
In other words, a wave of fear washes over you, sudden and powerful like electricity.
Why? Well, you’re a homo erectus living on the Savannah a million years ago, and you’ve just caught sight of a saber tooth tiger hiding behind a bush. Your thinking brain has no time to say, “Oh look, this creature seems like it could harm me, so I should prepare my body for an emergency situation.” But luckily, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t waste time. It sends a super-quick alarm through the body to get you ready for fighting or fleeing. Of course, this alarm feels, well, alarming. If it were soothing and sweet, you wouldn’t take the danger very seriously, would you?
The increased blood flow and adrenaline help you to run home to your cave. You survive today, and tomorrow, you may be lucky enough to find a mate and pass on your genes.
So, is fear useful? It’s literally life-saving! Even in today’s human world, where there are fewer saber tooth tigers lurking behind bushes, fear still helps us to survive. We get goose prickles when walking down a dark alley at night. We think twice about risky decisions. And we back off when someone comes at us with a threatening expression.
Well, most of us do.
A 2012 study compared psychopaths and healthy people on how they responded to pictures of threatening faces. The pictures were shown on a computer screen, and participants could use a joystick to either push or pull the pictures to make them smaller or bigger. Healthy participants tended to push the pictures away. Psychopathic participants, on the other hand, didn’t try to avoid the threatening faces at all. And this pattern of responding was associated with their level of instrumental aggression, which means being aggressive on purpose. So, being fearless might also mean being cold-hearted!
Also, most of us learn to fear things if they come with bad consequences. For example, in a 2005 brain imaging study, healthy participants learned to fear pictures of faces with mustaches, because each time they saw these faces, they would get an uncomfortable poke from an air pressure tube. The fear circuits in their brains were activated during this learning process, and their bodies reacted with appropriate fear responses like sweating. But their psychopathic counterparts were different. Their skin did not get sweaty, and their fear circuits showed no particular activation.
It seems like fear is not only a useful emotion for our individual survival. It’s also an emotion that may help keep the whole tribe peaceful. If all of us were literally fearless, all of us could be psychopaths, and that sounds like a truly dangerous situation.