Understanding Why & How We Feel Emotions
From the Flintstones to the Jetsons… or depending on how old you are, The Croods to Sweet Tooth. Emotions, and our reactions to them, have been programmed in humans from day one. Evolutionarily, they have been key to our survival as a species. And if you think back to the lives of early humans, something that kept you alive was a huge advantage in a treacherous world. I’ll explain what I mean, but first… a warning.
This will feel uncomfortable.
Remember in my last blog post when I said you should have learned about emotional intelligence in grade school? Well this next part you should have learned in kindergarten...
Ever wonder why we call emotions “feelings”? It’s because we can feel sensations in our bodies when we experience emotions. This is by design. Our negative emotions are present for our survival.
Think of us in cave people days... our emotions had a necessary function. They caused us to react. Reactions are incredibly valuable in life or death situations. When a cave person sensed or saw a bear, their fear would cause them to run, hide or attack. Emotions, and their reactions to them, kept early humans alive. Feeling emotions and responding appropriately to them could be the difference between survival and death. The more appropriate the response, the greater the chance for survival.
Today, we still feel similar sensations to our ancestors.
For example, a panic attack — for those of you who have never looked up the definition — is a brief episode of intense anxiety, which causes the physical sensations of fear. These can include a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, and muscle tension. Panic attacks occur frequently and unexpectedly and are often not related to any external threat.
But back in cave days, there were plenty of threats, which meant anxiety was useful because it warned the tribe when danger was lurking. The anxious humans protected themselves and their tribe by sensing the bears and making sure everyone was aware when something was coming.
Now let’s consider the definition more closely and in today’s world:
A panic attack is a brief episode of intense anxiety, (it will go away) which causes the physical sensations of fear (a reaction to an emotion). These can include a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, and muscle tension (sensations that feel like a heart attack and cause you to implore assistance from others). Panic attacks occur frequently and unexpectedly and are often not related to any external threat (you are likely not in danger and you will be okay).
Since panic attacks feel like heart attacks, they are commonly associated with emergency room visits. Because the feelings are intense, people often say they went “crazy”. But I hate the word “crazy” and we shouldn’t use it to describe reactions to emotions. There’s nothing wrong with a panic attack and you are not crazy for having one. The most important thing to remember when you’re experiencing a panic attack, or any intense emotion, is that these sensations will eventually go away or pass through.
Anger was another common emotion for the early days of humanity. It feels powerful. Not to say that the goal of anger is to feel powerful, but think about your mindset when you’re angry… your anger always feels justified, doesn’t it? That’s because the nature of anger leads us to thoughts that confirm and justify that anger. This is known as confirmation bias, perception bias, or amygdala hijack.
For example, when I’m upset at my sisters, my memories of when I was 2, 12, 22, 32, 33, 34, etc, all come flooding back into my memory to confirm why I’m upset at them in this moment. No one can tell me I’m wrong, and my body feels ready to fight — fists and jaw clenched, shoulders tight, legs shaking — and I need to move.
The cave people who’s fear brought them to anger would move quickly to attack the threat. They would use that energy and sense of power to eliminate the danger and protect the tribe.
Anger still comes in handy for certain situations, but for most of us, life-threatening danger — like bears — are not a common occurrence. Most of us get angry at our friends, siblings, partners, kids, parents, co-workers, complete strangers — the list is endless. It’s important to remember that anger, like every other emotion, will pass. It’s much more useful to figure out why you’re angry rather than lashing out, because people are not bears; they are other humans just like you.
In cave days, emotions like sadness functioned to honor the death, grief and pain that came after attacks. Losses could be detrimental to a tribe, but showing compassion and mourning together would strengthen bonds and bring the tribe closer.
Sadness can feel like a pit in your stomach, heaviness in your chest, or tears in your eyes. These tears are not a sign of weakness. Tears are the way your brain and body express themselves. They come and pass like any other sensation.
Loss is still a part of everyone’s lives today. Expressing sadness over loss, pain or grief is natural and needed. But like every other emotion we’ve discussed so far, sadness passes. Even in moments when the weight of sadness feels like it’s there to stay, like you’ll never experience happiness again, remember that eventually it will pass.
In cave people days, it was essential for everyone in the tribe to get along. Unity required that all tribe members abide by an established set of rules or values. Shame functions to stop the bad behaviors defined by the tribe. It encourages everyone to play by the rules to ensure the tribe’s long-term survival.
For example, the tribe might shame individuals for stealing or lying. Because shame is rejection, horrible sensations occur all over your body. For me, shame starts in my chest. I might get headaches or feel as though something is sitting on my shoulders, and it can move all the way down to my knees.
Honestly, shame feels like shit, which is why people in various cultures around the world do everything in their power to avoid these tensions. The last thing an early human needed was to be rejected by the tribe. Being on your own means you may be facing the bear alone.
Luckily, these days, most of us don’t need to worry about bears. But today’s people still don’t like feeling rejected by their tribes. It sucks to feel alone, or like an outsider, or that your friends don’t want to be your friends anymore.
Just remember, the definition of shame is either real or perceived rejection from others or yourself. I work with people who mostly think they are being rejected and who definitely reject themselves. Either way, these are horrible sensations to feel. Thank goodness the sensations will pass. I’ll share tips on how to help it move in a later blog.
To recap what we’ve learned…
Emotions were vital for the survival of early humans, but our reactions to emotions in today’s world are not always as useful. My job is to help clients realize that the sensations they feel are there for a reason, but that we can use skills to manage the stressful emotions humanity has survived by. If learned and practiced regularly, these skills become second nature. Just like when you’re hungry, you eat; when you feel your emotions, you use a skill.
A little bit of homework
Since emotions are designed to feel uncomfortable, it’s important to start feeling comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. The next time you’re experiencing an uncomfortable reaction to an emotion, observe your body. Label your sensations from head to toe. Don’t overthink it, just note and observe.
- Do you feel it in your face, your legs, your stomach, shoulders or chest?
- Does it move around the body or sit in one place?
- Does it feel heavy, hot or tingly?
- Can you observe it move or pass through your body?
It’s common for people to observe that they don’t have physical sensations, but that’s because this is a difficult exercise. It requires you to take a step back and observe when you’re wrapped up in an intense emotion. With practice, you should be able to label your sensations which will help you better define what you’re feeling.
Tips for parents
When your child is reacting to an emotion, encourage them to label their physical sensations, big and small. Add friendly reminders that emotional sensations come and go. No emotion is forever despite it feeling that way, and these sensations are supposed to feel challenging. Keep cheerleading your child after each sensation they notice and label.