Wouldn’t it be nice if our brains let us be happy and calm all the time? The science of emotions tells us that negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness are actually healthy and useful.
Why won’t my brain just let me relax? Why do I have such a short fuse? Why do I feel so sad? I wish I could just pull myself up by the emotional bootstraps and get happy!
These are some of the most common questions my therapy clients ask. And they’re all thoughts I’ve had about my own emotions. What we’re really saying is, “Negative emotions are bad. I want to get rid of them.” And no wonder! Fear twists our stomachs, anger makes us feel out of control, and sadness is such a downer. Sometimes, these emotions can seem so powerful that we feel like victims of their relentless grasp.
So why do we have them? Why do our brains play such cruel tricks on us? And how can we avoid having negative emotions?
Are Negative Emotions Bad?
Let’s start by questioning our assumptions for a moment. Are negative emotions all bad? Should we really try to get rid of them? After all, we figure that thumbs are useful because we evolved to have them over millions of years, and that tails are not because we evolved to lose them over time. So, if negative emotions have stuck around this long, shouldn’t there be some good reason to have them?
This week, we will bust some myths about anger, deconstruct fear, and learn to appreciate sadness. I’ll also give you one “golden rule” on how to handle these emotions in a healthy and productive way.
Your stomach clenches. Your muscles tense. Your heart starts to pound. Your whole body is on high alert, with every hair standing on end. Your palms get sweaty and your fingertips tingle.
In other words, a wave of fear washes over you, sudden and powerful like electricity.
Why? Well, you’re a homo erectus living on the Savannah a million years ago, and you’ve just caught sight of a saber tooth tiger hiding behind a bush. Your thinking brain has no time to say, “Oh look, this creature seems like it could harm me, so I should prepare my body for an emergency situation.” But luckily, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t waste time. It sends a super-quick alarm through the body to get you ready for fighting or fleeing. Of course, this alarm feels, well, alarming. If it were soothing and sweet, you wouldn’t take the danger very seriously, would you?
Is fear useful? It’s literally life-saving!
The increased blood flow and adrenaline help you to run home to your cave. You survive today, and tomorrow, you may be lucky enough to find a mate and pass on your genes.
So, is fear useful? It’s literally life-saving! Even in today’s human world, where there are fewer saber tooth tigers lurking behind bushes, fear still helps us to survive. We get goose prickles when walking down a dark alley at night. We think twice about risky decisions. And we back off when someone comes at us with a threatening expression.
Well, most of us do.
A 2012 study compared psychopaths and healthy people on how they responded to pictures of threatening faces. The pictures were shown on a computer screen, and participants could use a joystick to either push or pull the pictures to make them smaller or bigger. Healthy participants tended to push the pictures away. Psychopathic participants, on the other hand, didn’t try to avoid the threatening faces at all. And this pattern of responding was associated with their level of instrumental aggression, which means being aggressive on purpose. So, being fearless might also mean being cold-hearted!
Also, most of us learn to fear things if they come with bad consequences. For example, in a 2005 brain imaging study, healthy participants learned to fear pictures of faces with mustaches, because each time they saw these faces, they would get an uncomfortable poke from an air pressure tube. The fear circuits in their brains were activated during this learning process, and their bodies reacted with appropriate fear responses like sweating. But their psychopathic counterparts were different. Their skin did not get sweaty, and their fear circuits showed no particular activation.
It seems like fear is not only a useful emotion for our individual survival. It’s also an emotion that may help keep the whole tribe peaceful. If all of us were literally fearless, all of us could be psychopaths, and that sounds like a truly dangerous situation.
Yelling. Threatening. Throwing things. Throwing punches. Is this anger? No! This is aggression.
The biggest myth we need to bust right away is that anger and aggression are the same things. They are not. You can feel mad without hurting anyone. You can also bully someone without being mad at them. Anger is an emotion. Aggression is a behavior.
Anger is an emotion. Aggression is a behavior.
If anger and aggression were one and the same, then of course anger would be a bad, scary thing. We would want to avoid feeling it and discourage others from having it. But in fact, anger is a perfectly healthy and normal emotion.
Let’s think back to our homo erectus ancestor. If she worked hard all day to gather a bunch of berries, and I stole them from her, how would she feel? Mad, of course! She might feel tense, restless, and like there’s a fire burning in her tummy. This feeling would motivate her to confront me (in this case, probably by clubbing me over the head).
If she didn’t feel mad, what would happen? I would keep stealing from her. After all, there are clearly no consequences to taking advantage of this particular cavewoman.
In our modern world, we have more sophisticated confrontation strategies that don’t involve clubs. If someone stole my sandwich out of the office fridge, I may express how I feel about that. I’d ask for an apology and a promise that the sandwich thief would never do that again.
This not only protects my future sandwiches but makes my co-workers think more highly of me. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked people to rate their co-workers on how frequently they expressed various emotions, including anger. It turned out that how much anger people showed was positively related to how competent their coworkers thought they were. Not only that, but anger also predicted higher salaries and promotion potential.
How much anger people showed was positively related to how competent their coworkers thought they were. Not only that, but anger also predicted higher salaries and promotion potential.
Of course, I’m not recommending that you go around the office yelling at people and throwing their staplers. Remember, anger is not the same thing as aggression. Anger signals to us that something unfair has happened, that someone has wronged us or has hurt someone we care about. What we do about the situation can include assertive communication, peaceful political protest, problem-solving, forgiveness, and many other options. In any case, the emotion of anger wasn’t bad—it helped us to know that something was wrong and that it was important to address it.
Now, let’s turn the knob from hot to cold and visit yet another “negative” emotion.
This one is tough. Sadness is heavy and slow. It drains our energy and dampens motivation. How could sadness possibly be useful?
Well, when do we tend to feel sad? When someone we love dies. When we lose a relationship we cherished. When we wanted something badly but didn’t get it. These are experiences we’ve all had.
What would happen if we didn’t feel sad during these situations? We wouldn’t have funerals because we’d just shrug off a loved one’s death, and probably not care too much about those who are still alive, either. We would not cherish relationships, because meh, losing one doesn’t hurt at all. And we wouldn’t know which goals are important to us because not reaching them wouldn’t make a dent in our mental space.
Without sadness, we wouldn’t know which goals are important to us because not reaching them wouldn’t make a dent in our mental space.
On the other hand, feeling sad allows us to viscerally know, in our hearts and guts, what we care about most in life. It teaches us lessons from mistakes we make and reminds us to cherish things that we still have. Together with positive emotions like joy and excitement, sadness allows us to taste a rich array of emotions that highlight our values and guide our behavior.
In fact, having mixed feelings is good for your health! A study with almost 200 participants found that those who tended to experience both positive and negative emotions, as opposed to just one type or the other, tended to have better physical health over time. This was a small but statistically significant effect, above and beyond the benefit of having positive emotions. In other words, it’s good to have mixed feelings!
So, there you go. Negative emotions have a bad reputation because they don’t feel good and because we think they’re useless or dangerous. But they are actually very useful and healthy! Fear is our trustworthy alarm system. Anger lights a fire to expose injustice. And sadness shows us what’s most important in life.
A Golden Rule for Handling Negative Emotions
For now, here’s one golden rule for handling negative emotions: Know that it’s super healthy to feel that way, and then breathe into the emotion. Embrace it and walk yourself through how it feels in your body. Don’t try to fight against it, because you’ll probably lose, or at best, kick the can down the road. If you just let the emotion sit in your body, it will tell you what you need to know, and eventually move on. Try it out!