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A guide to emotions

This is an extract from Psychology Tools for Living Well. If you want to learn more about the role of emotions in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) then this is a great place to start.

Introduction to emotions

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The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Extract from: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows [1].

Have you have ever just taken the time to watch the people around you? If you have then you will have contemplated the fact that everyone has a rich inner emotional world. Everyone is at the centre of their own story, with their own heroes and villains, plot twists, struggles and successes. We all want to live happy lives, so why do we find it so hard sometimes?

One popular theory in psychology is that human beings are not evolved to be happy, but instead are ‘designed’ for survival. If that’s true then it changes the rules of the game a bit. Our job becomes one of making sense of how we can inhabit these minds and bodies that are designed for survival instead of happiness, and to live the best lives that we can. In this chapter we’re going to learn why emotions are impor- tant, and think about some of the ways they can interfere with our lives.

The purpose of emotions

Q: Why do we have emotions?

A: Emotions motivate us, they make us want to do things

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Imagine you woke up one day and didn’t have any emotions. How would you decide what to do that day? How would you know what’s important and what’s not? If you didn’t have any emotions would it feel ‘nice’ to be in a warm, comfortable bed? Would you feel excited about going to work? Or worried about what would happen if you didn’t go? What if you had managed to get up and were crossing the road – would you bother to hurry if a car was coming towards you? Why bother to do anything at all?

Our emotions help to guide the decisions that we make every minute of our lives. The world around us (and the thoughts in our heads) trigger emotional reactions all the time. Much of what we do is motivated by a desire to change or maintain a feeling-state – to hold on to good feelings or to avoid bad feelings.

Different emotions motivate us to act in different ways

Have you ever had the urge to shout at someone who was being infuriating? Or the urge to give someone a hug when they were really sad? Have you ever really wanted to take the last piece of cake? All of these urges are driven by our emo- tions. Emotions make us want to act, and different emotions guide us towards dif- ferent kinds of actions. We don’t have to act in the way our emotions suggest, but everyone has had the experience of wanting to do something. The image below shows the variety of actions that our emotions can guide us towards.

Figure 2.1: Our emotions motivate our actions.

The evolution of emotions

Like all life on Earth, human beings have evolved from other organisms. Much of our biological ‘hardware’ is very similar to that found in other species, even if lots of our psychological ‘software’ is different. If we want to understand our emotions we need to think about where they have come from and what they evolved for.

Figure 2.2: Our biological ‘hardware’ is the product of evolution.

Where have our emotions come from?

In evolutionary terms, the human way of solving problems by thinking about them and deliberately weighing up the pros and cons is a very recent addition to the world. Animals don’t think and reason in the same way that we do, but for millions of years they have had to solve complex problems like “Should I eat this new food that I’ve found?” and “is this a safe place to sleep?”. How do they do it? The answer is that emotions and ‘feeling states’ guide them to make decisions about how to operate in the world.

How do emotions work in other animals?

In very basic terms, emotions and ‘feeling-states’ help animals to make decisions about what kinds of things to approach and avoid.

Avoiding things can have huge payoffs. If an animal has an experience of fear when it encounters something new then it will be cautious, or perhaps avoid it entirely. If an animal experiences disgust when it eats a new food it will avoid eating that food in future. These decisions affect the survival of animals: those that are cautious around danger tend to live longer than those that aren’t, and bitter-tasting things often contain toxins so it is helpful for animals to have a disgust emotion that says “Hey, don’t eat that!”. Animals that live longer have more opportunities to reproduce and pass on their genes – and so you (and your genes) are the descendants of ani- mals that did at least some avoiding.

The ‘approach’ emotions influence survival too. Over millions of years animals have become programmed to enjoy and approach the kinds of things that helped their ancestors stay alive and reproduce. Many different species prefer warmth to cold, being dry to being wet, and prefer eating tasty food. We are animals too – we are the product of millions of years of evolution – and we have much of the same program- ming that makes us want to approach these things that make us feel good.

Approach and avoid

Let’s take a look at this idea of approaching and avoiding in a bit more detail.

Emotions that make us APPROACH Emotions that make us AVOID
Why have them?

In our distant past, situations that triggered ‘approach’ emotions tended to help us fare better. For example if a food tasted good then chances are that it was nutritious and full of energy.

Think of a hungry cave-person finding some meat or honey

Why have them?

In our past, situations that triggered an ‘avoid’ reaction tended to be ones that threatened our lives or well-being.

Imagine a cave-person stumbling across a sabre-toothed tiger in the dark

What kinds of things are we programmed to approach?

  • Food – helps us to stay alive
  • Sex and intimacy – so that we can reproduce
  • Comfort (being warm and dry) – helps us to stay healthy
  • Other people – our ancestors typically survived better in groups than on their own
What kinds of things can trigger a threat>avoid reaction?

  • Scary animals
  • Scary people
  • Scary situations

The short answer is ANYTHING. Our threat systems are exquisitely sensitive and are designed to learn quickly. If you have ever met someone with a fear or phobia then you have seen the result of an overactive threat system.

What problems can happen if this approach system gets out of control?

We might end up doing too much of what we like:

  • Addictions (over-eating, drug and alcohol problems, compulsive shopping, sex addiction)
  • Bipolar disorder is a problem where lots of things can feel like a ‘good idea’ but which can lead us to make unhelpful decisions.
What problems are associated with the avoid system being over-active?

  • Anxiety – a pat of the threat>avoid system
  • Depression – can be a result of us avoiding things that are essentail for our well-being
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – we might try to avoid particular thoughts or consequences
  • Panic – when we become avoidant of our own body sensations

Emotions as problems

In some ways it is odd to think of emotions as being a problem. After all, it is a normal human experience to feel them, and they are often a good guide to what we need to do. Feeling nervous can make us take care, feeling guilty can guide us to re- pair any damage we may have caused, and feeling that we have fallen out of love can guide us to end an unhappy relationship. Emotions can cause us to suffer though, so let’s think about why this should be the case.

The problem of ‘cave person’ emotions in the 21st century

Our evolved emotions and biological ‘hardware’ may have been programmed to help us survive in the past, but they have to cope with us living modern lives in the 21st century. This makes us vulnerable to a wide variety of problems.

For example, our programming means that we enjoy high-calorie foods. Fat, sugar, and salt typically make us feel good and we seek out more of those foods. This made sense in our evolved environments where energy-rich foods were scarce (when treats are hard to come by it is a good strategy to make the most them while you can). But this desire for salt and sugar-rich food causes problems now that they are readily available. We have to learn to regulate our desires and this isn’t always easy.

Another example of our ‘programming’ concerns other people. Historically, human beings used to live in relatively small groups – you would typically know most of the people in your tribe. ‘Outsiders’ were often dangerous and it made sense to have a default mode of being suspicious of strangers. The rule doesn’t work so well in the modern world. We live in cities with thousands or millions of other people and have no hope of knowing them all. Is it any wonder that some of us are prone to feeling paranoid, suspicious, judged, or anxious?

If you were to take home one message about the evolution of emotions it should really be this: emotions have evolved to help animals to survive, not to make them happy. Given that this is the case, our job becomes one of making sense of how we can inhabit these minds and bodies that are designed for survival instead of happiness, and to live the best lives that we can.

When are emotions a problem?

Some people prefer to view emotions as a guide rather than a problem. When they are feeling something strong they might ask “What is this feeling telling me to do?”, or “What does my heart (or gut) tell me?”. With the proviso that we are not saying anything is ‘wrong’ with having emotions, psychologists have some ‘rules of thumb’ about when emotions can become problematic:

Strong feelings go on for too long

For example, when the (normal) ‘baby blues’ after giving birth turn into post-natal depression. Or when (normal) strong feelings of grief persist for many years after the loss of a loved one.

They interfere with our ability to live our lives

For example, feeling so anxious that we are scared to leave the house or meet people. Or feeling so sad and demotivated that we can’t be bothered to do anything at all. We all have goals (plans) and values (things that are important to us personally) and emotions are worth exploring when they block our progress towards these.

They are out of proportion to what most other people would feel in that situation

For example, a certain amount of shyness is normal but some people feel such para- lyzing anxiety when they are around other people that it is labelled ‘social anxiety disorder’ (and can be successfully treated). After a traumatic event it is common to feel ‘wary’ and ‘on guard’, but some people who develop a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience extreme fear that may persist for many years.

We become scared of our own body feelings

Many people become scared of feelings in their own bodies, and in particular what it means to have those body feelings. For example, when Anna was in a place where she felt enclosed she would get short of breath and feel terribly scared. She thought that she must be losing control of her body and worried that she would pass out. Actually she was just noticing normal sensations of anxiety and was in no danger of fainting.

The right amount of emotion

Another way of thinking about the effects of emotion is to sort them into problems of ‘too much’, ‘too little’, and ‘too difficult to control’:

When we feel too much

  • We might feel too scared in certain situations, or when confronted with certain things. Sometimes this is labeled anxiety or phobia.
  • We might feel scared by what is going on in our own minds, or what we think we might do. Sometimes this is labeled obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • We might worry what other people will think of us, or how they will react. This can be labeled shame or as social anxiety.

When we feel too little

  • We might find it difficult to feel pleasure, or we might feel hopeless and lack the motivation to do anything. Depression can be associated with feeling ‘numb’ or not feeling the right amount of emotion.
  • Some people who have experienced significant trauma feel ‘numb’ or ‘detached’ from their emotions. This is a common symptom in survivors of trauma who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Some people who feel emotionally numb can act in quite impulsive ways in an effort to feel something. The lack of emotion can lead to problematic (and sometimes dangerous) ways of behaving.
  • Some people who develop psychosis can experience symptoms of ‘flat affect’ or feel ‘emotionally blunted’.

When we can’t regulate our emotions effectively

  • Some people have moods that cycle between ‘highs’ where they feel on top of the world (and which often leads to them making irrational decisions) and periods of ‘lows’ where they experience severe depression. This pattern is often seen in people who suffer from bipolar affective disorder.
  • Some people switch very rapidly from feeling quite numb and detached, to feeling strong surges of emotion. This is sometimes called a problem of emotion regulation.
  • Some people develop unhealthy ways of managing their emotional states. Examples include people who have developed eating disorders such as anorex- ia or bulimia, or people who self-harm or use substances as ways of managing their emotions.

What kinds of struggles do people have with their emotions?

Sian

Sian had problems with panic. She would feel her heart pounding in her chest. She worried that if it continued for too long she would have a heart attack and die. She tried very hard to avoid places where she had panicked before, and felt anxious if she had to go anywhere new. Sian was feeling too much fear and it was impacting her life.

Her psychologist spoke with her about how the body naturally re- sponds to threat, and about how our habits of thinking can give rise to strong feelings. Slowly, she helped Sian test some of her beliefs about the dangerousness of her rapid heartbeat. Sian became less fearful of her body and its reactions, and became able to approach the things that had previously made her feel scared.

David

David never felt good. He had been bullied at school and had par- ents who never showed much interest in him. He had developed a very low opinion of himself. Now he rarely went out and did not find much satisfying in life. David often felt numb – he was not feeling a healthy mix of emotion and it was interfering with his ability to live a fulfilling life.

David’s therapist spent time with him exploring how he had come to feel this way about himself. They discovered that he had some very harsh ways of judging himself, and had some rules that he wouldn’t dare to apply to other people. Over time, and with practice, David learned to be kinder to himself and began to get in touch with healthy ways of expressing how he was feeling.

Tara

Tara was angry. She had been hurt by the people who were supposed to care for her, felt ashamed of who she was, and had never learned how to soothe herself. When difficulties arose Tara would blame herself, get angry, and would often lash out. Tara’s temper meant that people often kept their distance from her, with the result that she didn’t have anybody to help her to manage how she was feeling. Tara’s overwhelming emotion made it dif- ficult for her to function in her life.

Tara’s psychologist helped her to understand why she felt so angry. They explored alternative ways of Tara responding to situations that upset her, and Tara learned new ways of managing the emotions that she found overwhelming. Most importantly, Tara came to judge herself more kindly.

Psychological approaches to emotion

Clinical and counselling psychologists, therapists, and counsellors around the world practise many different forms of psychotherapy. Each school of therapy has different theories, techniques, and teachings, but they all aim to help people to manage their emotional lives. The stances towards emotion of two popular models of therapy are described here: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a well-established psychological therapy. It is practised by thousands of therapists worldwide and there is extensive research evidence demonstrating that is an effective form of treatment for a huge variety of problems. The ‘CBT way’ of understanding emotions says that what we feel is a result of what we think and how we act. It suggests that if our goal is to man- age how we are feeling then we will need to make changes in our thinking and behavior. CBT has a repertoire of techniques for exploring and changing the ways we think and act.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT is a more recent branch within the CBT ‘family’ of therapies, and it takes a different stance towards emotion. ACT’s position is that problems occur when our emotions, or our attempts to control them, get in the way of us living a life in accordance with our values. A ‘valued life’ is one that we find personally meaningful, but our struggles with emotions often mean that we ‘drift off course’. ACT puts a different emphasis on what is important (living a meaningful life rather than regulating how I feel). The focus of work in ACT is in “facilitating individuals to more towards a more valued and personally fulfilling life, in a context in which previously obstructive unpleasant emotions no longer serve as obstructions” [2]. ACT therapists often use metaphors that invite people to take control of the direction of their lives, like ‘driving your own bus’ or ‘sailing your own ship’.

Exercise

Reflecting upon how emotion affects your life

If we want to manage our emotions (or live alongside them more comfortably) first we have to get in touch with how they are impacting our lives. Take some time to reflect on the role emotions play in your life at the moment by asking yourself the questions below. You can fill in your answers on the How Does Emotion Affect Your Life worksheet.

  • What do I feel too much of?
  • What do I feel too little of?
  • What do my emotions get in the way of me doing?
  • What do my emotions lead me to do too much of?
  • Where in my body do I notice emotions most strongly?
  • What is important to me? (What are my goals? What are my values?)
  • If I was living my life the way I truly wanted to, what would I be doing more of?

Exercise

Managing strong feelings

If you are feeling overwhelmed you could try one (or a few) of the following ways to help yourself

Shift your focus of attention

  • Change your environment. Go for a walk, go somewhere new
  • Watch a movie, tv show, or a funny video on the internet
  • Do something practical. Can you find anything that needs cleaning, painting, or fixing? Do it now
  • Read a book

Process your feelings

  • Speak to someone about how you are feeling
  • Write about how you are feeling (you could write it in a letter to someone, you don’t have to post it)
  • Draw a picture to represent how you are feeling right now
  • Scream into a pillow

Work with your body

  • Try a relaxed breathing exercise
  • Try a progressive muscle relaxation
  • Do some physical exercise. Go for a run, swim, brisk walk, or do some yoga or stretching

References

[1] Koenig, J. The dictionary of obscure sorrows. Retrieved from http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/.

[2] Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2001). Emotion regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57(2), 243–255.