Back in the seventeenth, a guy called René Descartes came up with a statement of existence, Cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am. More recently, and after much debate, I feel therefore I am, has become more distinctive in its description of the human condition. Our feelings, or emotions, define us. So, if they have a purpose, and are not some evolutionary mistake, why do we struggle with them so much?
Emotions could be said to be biologically-based psychological states brought on by neurophysiological changes often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition or even creativity, (Wiki). So, straight away we can see they are pretty complex. They perform an array of functions that we may not have considered, such as: they direct our attention, guide our behaviour, help with decision making, and allow us to retain and act on information. They are integral to our well-being.
When we experience trauma, physical or mental health issues, changes in our nervous system, or toxic stress; and I say toxic as some stress is essential for survival, we are called upon to deal with or negotiate our emotions. This shapes a response that can be adaptive or maladaptive. An adaptive response might be talking with someone, seeking help, practising mindfulness, meditation, professional counselling. Maladaptive response might be alcohol or substance abuse, denial or distortion of the facts, suppression of emotions or distancing from friends and family.
Why do we have maladaptive responses? They do have an initial function as they defend us from difficult feelings. They protect us from having to act or take responsibility and can divert from a sense of hopelessness. However, there is a cost to this suppression of emotions. It takes effort, both physical and mental, it can be exhausting and diverts resources from our cognitive tasks. Suppression doesn’t make the issues go away and they can emerge later and more severe, which can be very destructive, leading to major mental health issues. You may have heard people talking of hitting rock bottom before coming back up, but for some, that’s where they become lost and it’s important not to go there in the first place.
So, what can we practice to help regulate our emotions when trying to deal with life. The first thing might be a recognition and acceptance of what we are experiencing, bringing our emotions into our conscious awareness. To understand that these emotions are normal and common – you are not alone. That we want to go along the adaptive response route by talking with someone, reaching out for help. Exercise and sport, yoga and tai chi are useful examples of giving space to our emotions allowing them to work through our minds and bodies and not be suppressed. Accepting professional advice and developing other support networks such as best mates and family.
There is a rapidly growing awareness of the importance of our mental health. There’s no room for stigma. We need to understand this in ourselves and for others. To reach out when we need help, and to be there when needed. After all, being human is what it’s all about.
Article inspired by a presentation on Climate Anxiety by Dr Nadine Andrews.