Why do we need emotions?

It may sound like a great idea, but would you really want to live without feeling bad, to never have a negative emotion? What would life be like if you never felt sadness, hate, loss, grief, regret, anger loneliness, or fear? If you only ever felt positive emotions - happiness, excitement, love?

It would be lovely to imagine a world where no one was ever sad, lonely, angry or scared, but that isn’t the world we live in. We live in an imperfect world with billions of other people, competing for resources, love, sex, money, and fame, where there is danger and potential risk around every corner.

We are also animals, biological entities subject to disease, illness, and limited life span. We will all die eventually. And while we are alive, we are social animals - we live with or near and interact with other people all the time, particularly in a large city like London, with a population of seven million people. Life is complicated, with plenty to go wrong and cause us harm.

We need negative emotions to help keep us safe so we can prosper, thrive and navigate this complicated society we live in. Emotions tell us that something is wrong in our lives, and alert us to changes we might need to make; like physical pain: the acute pain you feel when you put your hand on a boiling kettle tells you to take it away again to avoid further damage.

Emotions play the same role. Sadness can be a sign something is missing; fear, that we are in danger; anger, that an injustice has been committed; irritation, that there is something wrong with a relationship.

They can stimulate us to take action or make a change in our lives. Boredom can provoke us to find something interesting to do, fear can make us leave a frightening situation, and anger could lead you to join a protest movement or campaign. You could see the emerging militancy in the environmental movement as driven by both fear of the future and anger at politicians’ failure to take the necessary actions. Continued and persistent sadness might prompt us to examine the losses we have suffered but never truly mourned and, by addressing deeply buried feelings, pass through the grieving process and emerge relieved of the burden of grief.

The problems begin when emotions go beyond their protective, stimulating role and start to overwhelm us, when we cannot stop feeling afraid, sad or angry, and this is interfering with our lives and relationships. This can happen for many different reasons.

Emotions can be held and felt in the body, as much as the mind. Sometimes we are aware of what we are feeling and where we feel that emotion; to see what I mean, ask yourself what your most powerful emotion is right now, and now ask yourself where you feel it in your body held in the body. Does the emotion have a location?

Sometimes emotions are so deeply buried we don’t feel them in the psychological sense, and are aware of them more as physical sensations (aches, pains, tension). Dr Jane Baxter, an American psychotherapist and certified physical trainer (what would be called a Personal Trainer in the UK), in her book "Manage your Depression through Exercise" (Baxter, J 2011 pp 104-5), shows how all memories, experiences, and sensations are stored as 'cellular experiences', regardless of whether they are a muscle memory, a neurological memory, or an immunological memory. Two types of molecules (peptides and peptide receptors) 'work together to create emotions'. Peptides carry messages from the brain to peptide receptors in individual cells, telling cells to behave in certain ways. If the brain decides a given situation calls for sadness, a 'sadness' message, in the form of a peptide with a particular combination of biochemicals, will be sent to the relevant cells, where they will bind with the peptide receptor.

Because of this, repressed emotions (emotions which we have buried because they are too difficult or uncomfortable to allow into our conscious mind) are stored throughout the body, not just in the brain, and they are experienced as sensations, such as nausea or tightness in the shoulders. Because they are carried in the body, negative emotions associated with trauma and other experiences can be released through exercise, and Baxter has developed a fitness programme to help clients release emotions through physical movement (Baxter, 2011 pp104-5).

Such deeply buried emotions, because they are held in the body, rather than in the verbal, conscious areas of the brain, are not available to language - they cannot be talked about. They still wield an influence over us though - unexpressed anger is sometimes thought about as causing or contributing to depression. If someone feels angry, but they are not able to talk about it, least of all to the person or people making them angry (because they are frightened of the power of their rage or of retaliation or abandonment by the subject of their anger), the anger stays with them, and sometimes ends up being turned against the self. On an unconscious level, you can’t express anger against another person, so you turn it against yourself, and that is where the low mood and negative thoughts of depression originate.

Talking with a psychotherapist can help you make sense of what you are feeling. If you are in the space of being buffeted and overwhelmed by emotions you cannot fully articulate, simply sharing your experience with someone trained to help people make sense of feeling, can be a relief. In therapy, you will find you are able to name your emotions and understand why you feel them; what they are trying to tell you. This happens through learning to listen not just to what is being said, but also to what is not being said, but is still felt, through being helped to put unspeakable experience into words. Only about seven percent of all communication is actually verbal. The rest happens through body language and unconscious communication.

EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) can help you access really deeply-buried emotions, those which lie in the body or the non-verbal areas of the brain and sometimes cannot be spoken about easily. The therapy brings together troubling memories or experiences from the past, the negative thoughts you have about yourself in relation to them, your emotions, and the location of those emotions in the body. This experience is then processed through stimulating eye movements and released. The work can also identify and process pain, stiffness, tension, and discomfort in the body which you become aware of; the physically-held emotions we looked at earlier.

Once the power of the emotion has been released and its message understood, you could be free from the grip of the past experiences which created them and be able to think more clearly about what you really want from your life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Andrew Keefe, MA FPC UKCP: Psychotherapist EMDR Therapist Personal Trainer
London WC1V & E3

Andrew Keefe is a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, EMDR Therapist and Fitness Instructor,in private practice in East London and Holborn. He has worked as a therapist at The Refugee Council, Freedom from Torture and WPF Therapy. He has special interests in survivors of sexual abuse, violence, terrorism, birth trauma and mental health and exercise.

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