Mind Your Mind: Emotions are adaptive, so let's celebrate them!

What would a world without emotions look like?

I can imagine that life would be dull, very dull indeed. Emotions are what makes us human, so I’m guessing that without emotions, there would be no music, no art, no drama and culture. We’d all be living like robots, unaware of how we impact others, and unable to savour the little moments that make our lives worth living. In other words, our bodies would not give us any clues or signals that we need to protect/feed/take care of ourselves in the moment. So, we could very well end up dead.

As someone who experiences strong, intense emotions, I recognize the fact that a lot of the time, experiencing emotions can be a painful process. Sometimes I wonder why my emotions hurt so much, but ultimately, experiencing emotions is a necessary evolutionary process that helps ensure our survival.

Simply put, emotions are fundamentally adaptive, which means they are helpers. They are useful because they help us navigate the world, so we are able to adjust to the conditions of our ever changing environment. When you take into account the evolution theory, everything makes more sense.

The main point to remember, though, is that without emotions, none of us would be alive today. Sometimes when I am experiencing an uncomfortable emotion (anger, fear, shame) I try to remember that. And if I’m feeling particularly accepting that day, I will even thank my emotions, as unpleasant as they are.

Here’s a few examples.

Anger: Anger is adaptive because it primes our body to attack and defend ourselves. Many years ago, our ancestors needed the ability to feel anger, so their body could prepare themselves in case a giant tiger jumped out from behind. Anger tells our bodies it’s time to protect ourselves. Anger motivates you to pursue your goals, and in some cases, fuels people’s passion for social justice. Anger is what motivates you to stand up for yourself. You might also feel healthy anger when someone you care about gets hurt by others — and this anger is a natural result of you caring deeply for that person.

Disgust: I don’t know anyone who likes the emotion of disgust, but disgust is adaptive because it’s an emotion that wants to help you avoid diseases/contamination. So, in the past centuries, disgust would tell your brain, “Ew! Stop! Don’t eat these berries! They’re poisonous!” Then you’d probably make a silly face and spit them out. It’d be an unpleasant experience, but at least you’d still be alive.

Love: Love is a pleasant feeling for a lot of people, and it’s adaptive because it not only enhances your quality of life, but also because love between certain partners can push them towards creating a family. If our ancestors never felt the urge to reproduce or had no desire for sex, none of us would be here today. Since there are different types of relationships, love can also bring all sorts of people closer together, like friends and family members. Human bonds and building relationships are crucial, because if we didn’t have interpersonal relationships, we wouldn’t take care of each other. Mothers would not have the maternal instinct of protecting their babies, and it has been demonstrated that social connection and a sense of belonging has a big influence on human beings’ mental health.

Guilt: Guilt is adaptive because it motivates you to live by your values. Guilt is the emotion that tells your brain, “You did X and Y, and you need to apologize.” Guilt can motivate you to make amend or repair strained relationships. Think of guilt as a built-in moral compass.

Sadness: Sadness is a vulnerable emotion, but it is also an important part of grieving. In turns, grief is adaptive because it allows you to cope with losses in a healthy way.

Fear: Finally, fear is adaptive because it alerts your body when you find yourself in a dangerous situation. When you feel fear, your body goes into fight or flight mode. In the old days, this was more than necessary, because it helped our ancestors decide whether they should flee, hide or attack their predators, depending on the circumstances.

I can only speak from personal experience, but I grew up in a society where I was taught that emotions are either 'good or bad,' 'positive or negative.' For example, some people believe that negative emotions like anger or fear are 'bad, dangerous and irrational.' Why is this so?

Our beliefs about emotions are different and largely depend on our upbringing. What’s funny is that emotions, by definition, are a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through the body.

Emotions are simply emotions.

We try to get rid of 'bad' emotions because we’ve been taught that they are unpleasant and want to get rid of them as soon as possible. But, 'bad' emotions can also be helpful in certain situations — like the examples mentioned above!

Uncomfortable does not equal 'bad' either. Some people have a hard time tolerating intimacy and experiencing love is terrifying for them. Does that mean that what they might be experiencing, 'love' is inherently bad? And if fear is a 'bad' emotion or a sign of weakness, why do people love horror movies, suspense novels or seek thrilling rides at amusement parks?

The key point is this: without emotions, none of us would be alive today! Let that sink in again. Emotions are vital for our survival because they incite us to react to our environment and changing circumstances. In my personal life, I try to accept my emotions as best I can, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Emotions are so complex, but I choose to believe that, ultimately, they can help me lead a rich, meaningful and fulfilling life.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.