Beginning in the Fall, our Arkansas Tech University counselors will begin to publish bimonthly blogs on our health and wellness center website. Our blog will serve two purposes: psychoeducation and normalization of mental and behavioral health issues. Most students on campus do not seek counseling; however, all students struggle with emotions, stress, sleep and other issues that we as counselors are uniquely situated to help. Through this electronic medium, we will try to reach students who are reluctant to come to counseling or do not experience clinical levels of distress. The following entry is the first of a three part series on emotions and coping skills. This entry provides a basic explanation of how negative emotions often serve important functions. Understanding this idea can help students refrain from pathologizing themselves, needlessly struggling with their emotional experience, and repressing the useful functions of negative emotions.
Welcome to the Wild West, and by Wild West, I mean western culture. Western culture has contributed a great deal to our well-being: Democratic government, Shakespeare, individual liberty, the scientific method, and most importantly, Instagram. These contributions do not come without baggage. Western culture has a long tradition of treating emotions as trivial and irrational. Our cultural doctrine dictates that emotions are to be ignored or eliminated. Further, there is an implication that if we are not happy, at all times, then we are broken. Advertisements incessantly send this message. Exercise machines, pills, and cars are sold on the idea that if you buy these products, you will finally achieve a state of happiness. Perhaps in our struggle to escape from negative emotions, we have forgotten why they can be helpful. This is what we will talk about today.
First, let’s discuss where our emotions come from. In order to understand emotions, we need to understand our evolutionary history. Evolutionary history deals with the traits we have inherited that once increased the likelihood that our ancestors and/or their family members would survive to reproduce. One example of a trait shaped by natural selection is eye placement. Predators have eyes placed near each other on the front of their face. Forward facing eyes allow predators to better locate and track the animals they are hunting. Alternatively, prey have eyes placed on the sides of their heads, which increases their chances of detecting a predator. Each of these traits increase the chances that the animal will survive to reproduce and pass their genes to their offspring.
Natural selection goes beyond simple physiology, however. If we take natural selection seriously, we must accept that selection pressures have shaped nearly all facets of our existence, including our emotions. When considering emotions from an evolutionary perspective, the predominant idea is to view emotions as motivators. Much like optimal placement of the eyes, the presence of a wide range of emotions increases the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Emotions increase survival by propelling us to behave in certain ways. For example, experiencing love motivates a parent to make significant sacrifices to ensure the safety of their children, thereby increasing the chances of a parent’s genes passing down to another generation.
Although negative emotions may be unwanted, even these experiences serve a purpose. Take anxiety for example. Imagine two people living in prehistory. One of these people becomes anxious when they see a blurry figure off in the distance. The other person has no such response. The difference in anxiety levels tends towards different behaviors. Anxiety will make the person more likely to avoid the unknown figure. Further, anxiety sets off a host of physiological actions that prepare the body to defend itself through fighting, freezing, or running away. A lack of anxiety does not prepare the remaining person. If it turns out that this figure is a lion, the person prone to anxiety will be more likely to avoid the dangerous predator and thus have more chances of reproducing and passing on genes coding for anxiety.
Evolution by natural selection has formed us into social animals. In this social realm, emotions show up again to play an important evolutionary function. Emotions such as regret, remorse, and anger all function to aid our social cohesion. That’s right, emotions as unpleasant as these are important for maintaining the groups to which we belong. A person who is capable of experiencing and showing remorse after violating a cultural norm is 1) less likely to commit this violation again 2) showing their peers that they understand what they did was wrong 3) and giving some signal that they are not likely to offend again. Taking this one step further, when we take advantage of another person in our group, that person becomes angry. If we value group membership, which would have been crucial to our survival in prehistoric times, our peer’s anger should serve as a punisher for the behavior we committed.
Now that we understand the importance of emotion, let’s revisit the question of “should we try to eliminate or ignore unpleasant emotions?.” If the ideas put forth in this paper have any merit, then emotions are not just an arbitrary experience. Emotions carry important functions. These functions can motivate and prepare us to act in ways that benefit us. They can also communicate important information between peers that helps increase social connection. Perhaps a better strategy would be to welcome and pay attention to these emotions. Give them the respect that they deserve. Having emotions is not the problem. Instead, problems arise when we do not have opportunities to practice healthy emotional expression or the tools to cope with them. Student affairs professionals can learn more suggestions about coping with difficult emotions without trying to eliminate them to help students and themselves. Stay tuned to the future entries of the blog at ATU.EDU/HWC.