Emotions are often thought of as being an enemy or something that must never be given in to. I’ve had clients say “if I start to cry, I may never stop” or “if I’m emotional I will seem weak”. What if I were to tell you that your emotions can be your best friend if you know how to develop a good relationship with them? What most people don’t understand is that emotions are crucial to good mental health.
Fact 1: Emotions are necessary for survival
Emotions are our own inbuilt biological function necessary for our survival. This function helps you become aware of what you’re feeling internally and externally, and how you’re being affected by it psychologically and physically. How intense your emotion is will vary according to the circumstance, your experience and what it means to you.
Example 1: A roaring lion is headed your way, fear kicks in and you run. You might feel brave and fight. The lion might be too close so you freeze, or its big jaw is all you can see, you feign death. All this is an inbuilt system to protect you in order to ensure survival.
Fact 2: Emotions are communicators
They inform us and others what is happening within our emotional state, telling us what we or others may need. This is communicated non-verbally, i.e. with facial expressions and body language, which our inbuilt system allows us to read and interpret. Some of these needs may include being soothed, being listened to or sharing what we are experiencing.
Example 2: Anyone with a baby will tell you that when they cry they want something. Depending on what is needed, the intensity will vary. How often we hear parents say that they come to know which cry is for what and when. Anything from a grizzle to the full throttle ear piercing “I want it now” is emotional development in action.
Fact 3: Emotions inspire motivation
Emotions require and motivate action. They depend on an interpretation of the type of environment you find yourself in, which activates your inbuilt biological mechanism to do something. Different emotions will require different actions which may be physical but will impact on behaviour.
Example 3: Remember the roaring lion? Fear kicks in and you’ll run away to safety. If you’re meeting someone you love, you’ll run towards them. If you see someone crying, you’ll comfort them or hug them.
Fact 4: Emotions provide information
Emotions provide important information that can prompt change in our thoughts and in our behaviour. By paying attention to our emotions, we discover how we feel about personal or societal problems.
Example 4: you may feel guilt if moral expectations haven’t been lived up to, prompting you to apologise. Or, you may feel angry about an issue within your community and want do something to help organise action.
Fact 5: Emotions move fast
Emotions only last for 90 seconds. That means that the neurological intensity of it in the brain will last for only 90 seconds. This is good news because it means you have more control than you thought. If you acknowledge what you are feeling and bear the intensity, it will naturally pass. The more you try to ignore your emotions or refuse their instruction, the more internal chaos they create, affecting your thoughts and behaviour.
Example 5: Think of your emotions as being like the weather. It is constantly changing, moving and guiding what activities you may or may not want to do. How many times have you gone out despite what the weather looks like? Many times I suspect. You know that the intensity of the rain, hail or shine is bearable because it will pass. The same goes for our emotions. They will pass – but will do so by acknowledging them, not by pushing them away.
- Emotions are a biological mechanism that ensures your survival
- Emotions communicate what you need
- Emotions motivate and cause you to do something in response
- Emotions are informative, highlighting what needs attention
- Emotions last for 90 seconds, & are changeable and manageable
Pay attention to your emotions. They are an important part of good mental health and general well-being.
Linehan, M. (1993) Skills training manual for treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York, NY: The Guildford Press
Van Dijk, S. (2012) DBT made simple a step by step guide to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.