Imagine if you felt nothing when someone close to you died. There was no heart-glow love when you held your newborn baby. Or you didn’t feel anger when someone else received a promotion for which you’d worked so hard.
We experience emotions for a reason; to let us know if something is beneficial or potentially problematic. They are part of our embodied humanity and give us clues as to what is meaningful in our life. In the West, emotions are sometimes viewed as an uncontrolled, animalistic part of us that should be overruled by reason and logic. This, of course, is not only impossible but also unhealthy. As therapists, we know the importance of emotions but I needed to be reminded of their rich heritage. Funnily enough, it was my growing interest in other primates, as well as recently getting a dog, that has brought me back to the realisation that emotions should be celebrated.
How emotions benefit us
Emotions signal that something needs to be acknowledged; they are an ‘adaptive reaction’ that motivate change; the canary down the mine that tells you the air is becoming toxic and you need to shift. You may feel anxious or uncomfortable around a person or situation. Maybe you get the feeling that they are not to be trusted, or they bring out a part of you that you’d like to change. Perhaps you feel jealous of someone. If you reflect on what skills or qualities they have that you want, it will tell you something about what is missing in your life, and help you to re-focus your own goals. Envy can flag up unfairness and inequality that triggers a hardwired reaction, also seen in other primates. You can see a wonderful video of a capuchin monkey demonstrating this in a TED Talk by Frans de Waal.1
A sense of injustice, anger and ‘indignation’2 can propel us forward to new projects, new understandings, and can sometimes motivate us to fight for causes and social justice. My own frustration and distress at the lack of emotional support for parents of disabled children, when my son, who has cerebral palsy and autism, was born, motivated me to establish the website affinityhub.uk to signpost support for parent carers. Activism can arise from our emotional responses. Even shame3 and guilt can motivate learning and growth, provide insight, and elicit us to act in a different way, a more prosocial stance for the good of our family or community.
Echoes from our shared primate ancestors
Our shared common ancestor from so long ago leaves echoes across the different primates. Our closest living relatives give us a clue to some of our inbuilt emotions, but also highlight our differences. We see in chimpanzees and gorillas the importance of social relationships, power struggles and insecurity about our place in the group. And the vital mother-infant relationship in the orangutan, where the infant is dependent on the mother for eight to 10 years and always retains a close bond. Conversely, you couldn’t put a group of chimpanzees on a plane together without there being carnage4 because of their greater aggressive tendencies and poorer impulse control. (Some humans exhibit this on planes as well but they would be frowned upon by the group and probably arrested.)
Although it is commonly acknowledged that other primates feel emotions, it seems that specific strengths within our human emotional repertoire played some part in our survival and success as a species. In particular, our ability to co-operate and communicate with others and utilise important complex social resources were key. For example, other primates do not blush, and this may link to the human tendency to trust people whose emotions we can read in their faces, over those who never show shame or guilt.5
These social skills are pushed to the absolute limit in our current forever-connected world, which requires the highly complex processing of possible abstract outcomes and impacts with regards to others in our community. Social comparison, either upward or downward, can have its benefits, but on social media the tendency to only see people’s ‘best’ lives can leave us feeling downhearted. The constant stream of comparison was not something our great ancestors would have had to process. It can be overwhelming and draining to navigate, yet our emotional responses may give us a map to start to help us to make sense of our world.
Of course, there are unhealthy reactions to emotions, such as using alcohol or substances, aggression towards self or others, or withdrawing for long periods of time. Strategies that work in the short term don’t always help in the longer term. Hopefully, with support from our social network, or counselling, we can turn to healthier activities and outcomes. Balance is key. We need just the right amount of an emotion to get the benefit it brings.
Primary and secondary emotions
Primary emotions are the responses we feel naturally and automatically. When someone says something we perceive as rude, it’s the angry feeling that can’t be ignored; the envy at our friend’s photos of a beautiful holiday; the joy when a child does something adorable; the chuckle as a puppy chases his or her own tail. Sadness tells us there is something that needs to be looked at, and, if we ignore it, we risk it bubbling over in other ways. Anger often stems from sadness, or an offence we have felt. Rather than react to that, we can sit with it, see what it touches upon and learn from it.
These are human responses. We don’t always like them, but they happen, and generally we move on from them quickly. Developments in neuroscience suggest that the gut is actually a ‘second brain’,6 which has a higher prevalence of serotonin and plays a vital role in the development of social behaviour. Therefore, sometimes listening to our bodily instinct is useful; it tells us something immediate about what we are feeling, such as the ‘butterflies’ when we are nervous. Increasingly, research suggests that the body is also tied up in moral decision making, such as our heart beating faster if we take an action that is inconsistent with our moral principles.
Although emotional reactions are often categorised as impulsive, and possibly linked to Kahneman’s7 rapid-fire, intuitive, automatic ‘System 1’ thinking (rather than ‘System 2’ thinking, which involves conscious attention and focus), interestingly, without these primal emotions, people can struggle to make decisions.8 Kahneman argues that we tend to think that we are our ‘System 2’ thoughts, whereas, in actual fact, ‘System 1’ thinking has more of an influence than we like to admit.7
Secondary emotions are more complex and involve our reaction to the primary emotion or thought. We may start to analyse them, looking for patterns and drawing (often incorrect) conclusions, such as, ‘I never have a holiday, my life is so unfair’, or, ‘Why do I never stand up for myself when others are rude?’, or ‘Why can’t I feel happier more in my life? What’s wrong with me?’ It can lead us to unhelpful ruminating; dwelling on our thoughts and feelings and sometimes becoming stuck.
Becoming more aware
Mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapies work on reducing unhelpful rumination. They do not attempt to remove the emotions, but rather make space for them, through noticing how one is overthinking or worrying about what has happened or may happen, and being more aware of the knock-on effect this has on our wellbeing and stress levels – not trying to remove them but just naming and witnessing them as something that is happening. This involves grounding ourselves in our breath and learning to sit with the uncertainty life brings. And, hopefully, we can reduce or at least de-contaminate the secondary emotions, the stressing over and making generalised statements about the world, or ourselves, which actually have a detrimental effect on wellbeing. Remembering that we are not our emotions, they are one part of us.
Mindful in the moment: learning from animals
Maybe we have something to learn from other animals in terms of being in the moment. Naturally mindful, the orangutan focuses on travelling through the trees, finding the best path to where they need to go, mind and body as one. The gorilla exists in the moment of picking leaves from a bush, using all their senses to guide them. We can get distracted in the ‘what ifs’ in life. Stewart-Williams states that, ‘One of the only times that people truly live in the moment is when their lives are in danger’,9 which takes us back to a survival instinct that connects us with thousands of years of development. Primatologists increasingly believe that other primates do have the capacity to forward plan; however, they seem to have a better balance of being in the ‘flow’10 of meaningful activity. This is repeatedly shown as beneficial to wellbeing and happiness.
It is also seen in the dog that follows an interesting scent, with their whole body involved in the task at hand, and with a sense of purpose and engagement. Watching my dog’s tail tells me all I need to know about how she is feeling. It is the most pure, unadulterated expression of emotion I can think of. Tail wagging joyfully; I know she’s happy. Tail down between her legs – she’s scared. It may be this clarity that helps in dogs’ connection with humans, including those on the autism spectrum. The therapeutic benefit of animal contact is increasingly recognised with the use of pet therapy in various settings. I see this with my son and his relationship with our dog. There is no judgment or game playing, saying you feel one way when in actual fact you feel the opposite. Their emotions are obvious and accessible and we know where we stand with them. I also like the fact that after our dog has felt nervous about something, she literally shakes her whole body to discharge the negative energy and then moves on. I get something similar when I jog, particularly when I’m pondering a problem. Body and mind entwined.
Nesse11 talks about the evolution of emotions and concludes that even mental health difficulties, such as clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, probably started out as beneficial. It is only as these aspects have gone into overdrive that they fall into an unhelpful response. In the times of early homo sapiens, anxiety would have kept us alive, but taken too far, it can stop us leaving our home and therefore not getting enough to eat. Depression can keep us quiet and safe at times of threat in the outside world, but if prolonged, it is no longer functional, and we lose touch with the ‘tribe’, which helps keep us engaged and able to gain access to resources. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may link to a natural hibernating instinct that hasn’t fully disappeared from our genetic makeup. Disgust and obsessions about hygiene may have helped us to become more sanitary and cautious but can prevent us from taking the natural risks that are part and parcel of being alive. Even eating disorders could be adaptive at certain times – for example, during a famine, being able to starve ourselves would be helpful – but if we never reverse this, it will kill us.
Act in haste, repent at leisure
Of course, there is a broad spectrum of experience, and sometimes these emotions become unmanageable. At times, they can cause us to act rashly and make mistakes; the ‘emotional tail that wags the rational dog’.7 It is not always sensible to make decisions in the heat of the moment: for example, when gripped with anger. If emotions become overwhelming, then a chance to reflect, maybe through counselling, can help us clarify what is going on and gain a sense of perspective. We can all become more fluent in our emotions, with greater awareness and change in our attitude to them. Nesse reports that some clients find it helpful to set their responses within the evolutionary landscape. It gives a deeper, richer understanding of the experience and avoids a sense of blame or that there is something ‘wrong’ with them. These responses have developed over many, many generations. In some circumstances, these painful feelings keep us alive.
Something to celebrate
Human beings are complex. We are a wonderful mix of emotions and reason; holding a multitude of beliefs and values all at the same time. If this sometimes goes wrong and we get our balance of negative and positive feelings out of kilter, it is hardly surprising. It is more surprising that most of us manage to function, have positive relationships with others and navigate our complex modern world at all. Emotions help us along the way, if we learn to read them, make use of them (not only for ourselves but for the good of our species too) and recognise what is helpful and what is detrimental. In the Western world, intellect and reason are admired, vaunted and respected. Obviously, there is a time and place where rationality is essential. However, I’d like to pay tribute to emotions for all that they give us and the life-compass they provide.
Joanna Griffin is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and founder of affinityhub.uk, a website signposting parents of disabled children to emotional support. She also provides supervision to counsellors and psychologists. griffinpsychology.co.uk
1. de Waal F. Moral behavior in animals. TED [Online.] https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=GcJxRqTs5nk (accessed 15 July 2019).
2. de Beauvoir S. All said and done. London: Penguin; 1977
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4. Wrangham R. The goodness paradox: how evolution made us more and less violent. London: Profile Books; 2019.
5. de Waal F. Mama’s last hug: animal emotions and what they teach us about ourselves. London: Granta Books; 2018.
6. Hadhazy A. Think twice: how the gut’s ‘second brain’ influences mood and well-being. Scientific American 2010. [Online.] https://www. scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/ (accessed 12 July 2019).
7. Kahneman, D. Thinking fast and slow. London: Penguin Random Books; 2011.
8. Damasio A. The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness. London: W Heinemann; 2000.
9. Stewart-Williams S. The ape that understood the universe: how the mind and culture evolve. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2018.
10. Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Random House Group Ltd; 2002.
11. Nesse RM. Good reasons for bad feelings: insights from the frontier of evolutionary psychiatry. London: Penguin; 2019.