Negative Emotions – What are they good for?
If I posed the question, ‘what are negative emotions good for?’ I would reasonably expect most people to answer with the words, ‘absolutely nothing’. Let’s face it feeling bad is no fun; it zaps your energy and sucks the joy out of life. In our social media driven life and perfect image obsessed society we feel that we must put on a ‘picture perfect’ smile and pretend that we are happy and positive all the time.
In modern society negative emotions have become a sign of weakness and inadequacy, forcing us to internalize how we’re really feeling and creating even bigger problems. Negative emotions are an imprint of our past and a normal part of life, however, when we suppress our emotions we end up holding onto to them in the cellular memory. Because we are human beings we can’t help, but experience negative feelings from time to time and whilst these negative feelings might make us feel awful and isolated from the world, they are actually more beneficial than you may initially think.
A variety of psychologists and social scientists have invested many hour of research into the benefits of negative emotions, specifically those of sadness, pessimism, guilt, anxiety, mindlessness, anger and jealousy. Indeed psychologist Joesph Forgas discussed how periods of sadness make us pay more attention to detail which can be highly beneficial to us in term of increasing our external awareness, making us more in tune and aware with our surroundings. He concluded that the benefits of this increased awareness through sadness are improved memory, more accurate judgment of others, increased perception and more attentive and receptive to the need to execute changes in your life.
In another study, psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor compared optimists to pessimists in a variety of “risky” tasks and the results were contrary to what many of us would have assumed, indeed, whilst it would be natural to assume that optimists would outperform pessimist because of their confidence, pessimists actually performed similarly. Norem concludes in her book , ‘The Positive Power of Negative Thinking’, that the pessimists “negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.” She explained that imagining the worst case scenario prepared the pessimists for any eventuality, which motivated them to try even harder and focus more energy on getting ready for any and all kinds of tasks and were not phased by things not going to plan.
Whilst the emotion guilt was shown by research to improve your moral compass. In his book “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your ‘Good’ Self — Drives Success And Fulfillment,” psychologist Todd Kashdan explains that the emotion of guilt was a way of keeping morals in check. Indeed in an interview he explained that “adults prone to feeling guilty were less likely to drink drive, steal, use illegal drugs, or assault another person.”
It seems that all of our emotions positive or negative have a vital role to play in our life, for example, no one likes to think about anxiety or would want to willingly invite it into their life, but studies have shown that anxiety turns you into a problem-solver. Humans’ natural “fight or flight” response, [now termed ‘fight, flight or freeze’, and discussed later in this article]which tells us to either stand up and fight against the object of danger or run from it, is related to anxiety. The fight or flight response is automatic and a natural mechanism; which allows your body to metabolize a lot of energy quickly — from implementing changes in your nervous system, to making your heart beat more rapidly, to feeding your muscles more oxygenated blood — in order to act quickly in dangerous or uncomfortable situations and ultimately escape harm.
We all feel positive and negative emotions throughout our lives and sadly we cannot live exclusively in a happiness bubble and we have already discussed how both positive and negative emotion can be beneficial to us, with research suggesting that negative emotions serve a purpose whilst experiencing positive emotions can actually improve our attention capacity and boost our overall wellbeing.
So, it seems that the issue in hand is not the emotions we experience in life, but how we process and deal with them. The late Dr. Candace Pert devoted much of her working life to the study of the physics of emotions. Pert was a pioneer in the study of emotions and paved the way for consequent studies and an increased understanding of how our emotions are connected to our whole body. Indeed Pert explained that emotions are not simply chemicals in the brain. They are electrochemical signals that affect the chemistry and electricity of every cell in the body. The body’s electrical state is modulated by emotions, changing the world within the body and in her book ‘ Molecules of Emotion’, she explained how negative emotions are stored within the bodies cellular memory.
Author Mal Weeraratne suggests that in order to release stagnant negative emotions held within the body that we should consider using his unique emotional release technique that harnesses ancient knowledge and practices combined with new groundbreaking insights in order to create an engineered trauma release technique, called Tantric-Tao Bodywork for Emotional Detox. Tantric-Tao Bodywork is a British-pioneered technique intended to eliminate traumatic experiences at a cellular level in the body to start living a positive life—a biological cleanse and detox to experience joy and bliss.
Perhaps we should consider how we manage to retain negative emotions, after all, we are surely designed to release our negative emotions naturally. In the book, Molecules of Emotion, Pert writes about how unprocessed emotions in the body actually become stuck affecting a person’s entire system, but this doesn’t explain why we don’t always disperse with trauma and negative emotions, so the question remains, ‘Why Do Emotions Get Stuck In the Body?’ The answer is that any emotional energy that we don’t fully experience and process, can get trapped in the body.
Dr. Peter Levine has studied the effects of trauma response in great depth and is a leading expert in understanding the fight, flight or freeze response. When Dr. Peter Levine, gives lectures on surviving trauma, he shows a video of a lion chasing a baby gazelle. What he is trying to show the audience is exactly how the freeze response works. He explains that the video is short because the average time for a lion attack from start to finish is about 45 seconds. So he makes the additional (and very important) point that this is how long the victim’s stress response (and our stress response) was designed to be activated for: Not hours or days, or even weeks on end like it does in us chronically stressed humans who don’t know how to turn it off. During the video that Levine shows the lion catches up to the gazelle and proceeds to ravage the baby animal, sinking its teeth into the animal’s neck before throwing it down on the ground several times, making sure it’s completely lifeless. It seems that the gazelle’s fate is sealed; but then something miraculous happens: as the lion walks away from its ‘kill’ [presumably to bring back its young], the gazelle ‘wakes’ from its freeze state. During the video you witness the gazelle shiver all over, before it stands up and runs away, making a clean escape.
For human beings, the freeze response can occur when we are petrified and feel like there is no chance for our survival and no chance of escape. This response happens to rape victims and to people who are the victims of violent assaults etc., sometimes they pass out, freeze or mentally remove themselves from their bodies, and don’t feel the pain of the attack, and sometimes have no (explicit) memory of it afterwards. The ‘freeze’ state is a survival mode that prepares us for the worst in order to minimize our pain.
That’s why what was once known as the fight or flight response is now called the fight, flight or freeze response. Sometimes, when the odds are overwhelming we neither stand and fight or make a bid for escape, but simply freeze. So why can us humans not simply go from flight, fight or freeze response to releasing the trauma and being free, just like the baby gazelle? Well, there are a few reasons:
· When we talk ourselves out of expressing our emotions
How many times have you told yourself it is “ridiculous to get upset over this!” or that you are jut being ‘’silly’’ and it’s best not to ‘trouble people with your silly/petty feeling’’. Those types of situations cause you to be at risk for trapping emotions. Emotions want a “voice” and need to be experienced, acknowledged and released if they are not acknowledged, they won’t go away.
· When we are isolated at the time of the event
When we are isolated whilst dealing with a stressful event, we are at risk for trapped emotions. I believe this is because it is human nature to find comfort in the sharing of our emotions — positive and negative. When we can’t reach out, we may be less likely to really feel them and experience them. It often feels safer to let go emotionally with someone else, we basically need someone to hold the space for us, whilst we let go of our negative emotions and trauma.
· When we have never experienced something similar before
Not having any coping skills for the specific event that’s bringing up negative emotions can really leave us without a coping strategy, for example If it’s the first time you are experience something, a death of a loved one or an assault for instance, you are more likely to “freeze” emotionally than you would be if you had coping skills for the situation. You would be more likely to have coping skills if you learned them during an earlier similar life event which is why we need both positive and negative emotions as they teach us different coping strategies and mechanisms.
When the young gazelle shakes and shivers after being attacked and emerging from the ‘freeze’ state what it is doing is releasing the trauma, as humans we often suppress our feelings, either because we don’t know how to express our emotions or we feel we must put on a ‘brave face’.
When dealing with negative emotions it can be very difficult to discover the true source of your physical and emotional problems, such as depression. As a result we rarely address healing the source of emotional and physical dis-ease and instead we end up simply managing its symptoms. We have a natural tendency to think the problem is our current circumstance, but this is often inaccurate. If we invest our energy in changing our circumstances as the source of our problems when our circumstances are not the source of the problem, we simply create more stress, pressure and disruption.
Indeed over the last fifty years or so, many experts have verified that the source of your symptoms of pain and anxiety is located in the unseen issues of your unconscious and subconscious mind, or what science calls “cellular memory.” When dealing with the matter of emotions, it is important that we embrace all of our emotions positive and negative and that we pay attention to each and every one of them, expressing them and not suffering them in isolation, instead ‘feeling’ them and releasing them.
It comes as no surprise that the most commonly trapped negative emotions include, disgust, shame, worthlessness, anxiety and grief – perhaps this is because they are the hardest ones to ‘voice’.
Remember, negative emotions aren’t bad. They can only harm if you don’t let them go.