The push for positive thinking is strong. You may have seen studies and think pieces about the "power of positive thinking" and the severe consequences of stress and negativity on our mental and physical health. The message is clear: Stay Positive! After all, what could be wrong with maximizing feel-good emotions? Shouldn't the goal be to feel happy all the time?
Human being tend to recoil from unpleasant experiences, and the urge to avoid difficult emotions can be very strong. While there are many valid and helpful findings about positivity, the consequence of avoiding difficult or unpleasant emotions can be very unhealthy in the long run. All of our emotions serve an important function in our lives, even the so-called "negative" emotions: fear, anger, sadness. In this article, I hope to shed some light on how these three challenging emotions play an important role in our lives.
Primal Emotions: The Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response
The fight or flight response can be observed in animals, and human beings are no exception. It is a reaction focused on survival from potential threats, and has helped us as a species to avoid predators and other dangerous situations. It is also the basis of some of our most basic emotions. Although running from predators isn't the typical human experience any more, the fight or flight response remains, and governs much of our behavior even if we don't realize it. When a threat is perceived, a small structure in our brain called the amygdala is activated. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, our heart rate and breathing speeds up, and our body prepares to spring into action. The two typical responses are to either run away from the threat or to fight off the threat. However, when the fear is so intense, it may overload our system, creating a freeze response instead—think deer caught in the headlights, remaining immobile at the oncoming threat instead of running away.
The basic emotion of fear, driven by the flight response, communicates the need for safety. Without fear, we would not seek to protect ourselves from danger. Just like we may jerk our hand away from a burning hot stove and the sensation of pain it creates, fear and anxiety can help prevent or remove us from dangerous situations. This emotion is tied very closely to physical responses, putting us in a state of tension that can help us survive. A lack of fear is dangerous to our survival, but too much fear and anxiety causes problems as well, possibly to the point of becoming an anxiety disorder.
The basic emotion of anger, driven by the fight response, communicates the need for change. Often, anger stems from getting hurt, or sometimes as a response to a perceived injustice. Very similarly to fear, this emotion is also very physically-based, causing a variety of heightened physiological responses. Anger is not necessarily always destructive—in fact, it may be protective. Anger can empower us, springing us into action to create needed change. Too little anger, and we become overly passive. Too much, and we risk damaging our important social connections.
The basic emotion of sadness —the need for connection. This basic emotion stems from the experience of loss and can range in responses from slight disappointment to heavy grief. Sadness motivates us to seek out connection and comfort when we have been wounded. Sadness is also often expressed through crying. When a baby is born, typically their first response is to cry. Babies tend to do quite a bit of crying to get their needs met. This stems from a basic need to survive, a form of communication that helps them to connect with their caregivers. A person who is having difficulty working through their sadness may find it difficult to process the various losses they experience throughout their lives. Sadness in excess can be found in disorders such as depression.
Certainly, difficult and painful emotions in excess can decrease the quality of your life, having a major impact on multiple on your functioning in your family life, personal life, and work life. However, the answer is not to try and completely eliminate difficult emotions. Emotions can be adaptive and play very important roles in our lives. Not listening to our emotions can often be quite damaging, especially if it becomes a pattern over time.
Leslie Greenberg, developer of Emotion-Focused Therapy, emphasizes the importance of identifying, interpreting, and learning how to regulate these emotions. Rather than trying to sweep "negative" emotions under the carpet, it is important to learn how to accept and live with the full range of emotions for a healthy and fulfilling life. If you struggle with challenging emotions and feel stuck in them, therapy can be a place where you can learn to work through them.
References: Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings by Leslie S. Greenberg
Dr. Amber Sylvan is a therapist in Ann Arbor, MI who helps adults work through their challenging emotions.