Environment – our context for living

A basic law of organic life states: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. This is a ‘given’. In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. And while our mind may be elsewhere, part of our brain is scanning the environment, mostly below our awareness, for the opportunity to satisfy an innate need, often one of four basic ones – food, love, sex and achievement.

Of these four needs, you will notice that only one, food, is a physical one, and deprive the organism of this and it will die. The others are non-physical or emotional needs, and while the organism – in this case – humans will not die without them, they will suffer distress. Humans have more in mind than just staying alive. So often the reason life-support is switched off is not because the person can’t be kept alive, but because there is little point in living if there is no chance of meaningful interaction. While survival is important, for humans it is not the main game – they need to interact with their environment to flourish.

If a person displays signs of distress – emotionally charged or agitated, drained of purpose, bereft of joy, suffering low mood or generally not flourishing in their interaction with their environment – according to this law, it comes down to one of two things: poor environment, or insufficient interaction with it. Usually the latter.

Some environments are poor in their capacity to provide opportunity for emotional needs to be met. A situation of constant threat (an abusive relationship for example) will reduce the chance for people living in that climate of fear to flourish.  Their needs for love, connection, privacy, control and autonomy, all important human needs, will have little chance of being met.

Other environments may appear ‘poor’ to one person, and be fine for another. If you have seen the movie Samson and Delilah one could be tempted to explain Samson’s petrol sniffing in the context of limited opportunities for anything else in his environment. Delilah, however, lives in the same environment and has a rich source of meaning and connection. Her behaviour is purposeful (artwork) and caring for her grandmother provides her with a sense of significance. So, it is not necessarily the environment per se, but one’s perception of it that matters.

Given that for most of us, our environment is neither abusive nor an outback settlement, most emotional distress can be attributed to the lack of interaction with it. And while these needs are mostly innate, the successful interaction skills required for western society are not. They are skills that have to be learned by good parenting, positive peer relationships, and, especially during formative years, a supportive and encouraging circle of friends. If the individual has missed out on these vital interaction skills – and it could be their environment prevented or hindered their development – they can be taught later in life. Many of the people I see for therapy are in this category, and given direction and mentoring, can become fluent in negotiating their environment in order to flourish again. The basic law of organic life is a useful starting point to this success.

Emotions – an introduction

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. Sounds simple, deceptively simple. One of the useful aspects of recent research in psychology is the focus on the emotional brain (often called the ‘limbic system’) or that part of the brain that operates largely automatically and without the influence of the rational thinking part of the brain. Another useful recent focus is the role context plays in our understanding of the brain. Up until fairly recently, cognition (knowing or perceiving) was thought of as an essentially individual affair – what’s going on in a person’s head. However, we don’t think inside a vacuum, it takes place in a context, an environment of some sort. So these two aspects – the part of the brain that has first call on all sensory information and can act without much input from our thinking; and the notion of interaction with our environment,  give us a good start in un-ravelling our definition of emotions.

Let’s look at the three parts of this definition. Firstly emotions prepare us for action. Now there is a chemical (neurotransmitter) explanation for this preparation; certain chemicals get us focused and moving, leading to the somewhat faulty view that if people can’t get focused or moving, it is a lack of certain motivating chemicals. If the problem is defined as a chemical one, it follows that the solution will be framed in chemical terms. However, unless we are in the business of marketing chemical treatments, this explanation has little benefit for people looking for a better understanding of emotions.

A better explanation of the preparation for action can be found in a basic law of organic life: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. (I can feel another blog topic coming on already, and this from a reluctant blogger!) In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. Emotions are a vital part of that interaction, they stimulate the action around four basic drives – food, love, sex and achievement. So, emotions are more than chemistry, they are an essential part of staying alive by interacting with our environment.

Secondly, this interaction with our environment has a purpose: to get a need met. The need may be physical; hunger drives us to search for food, and the act of eating leaves us with a sense of having our appetite satisfied. Or, equally important is the range of non-physical or emotional needs; a need for connection with another person is satisfied with a sense of companionship driven by a powerful emotion called love. While physical needs have been understood for a long time, it is only recently that emotional needs have been recognised as an essential part of being human. For lower forms of organic life, survival is the main game, but with humans, they have more in mind than just staying alive. They need to flourish; to be challenged and solve problems; to feel in control and have some sense of autonomy; they need to derive meaning and significance from their interaction with their environment, and so on. Getting these needs met contributes to emotional wellness; not getting them met arouses the emotional brain to prepare for action, usually with a corresponding reduction in our capacity to think clearly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking. Raise the emotional arousal – such a someone ‘doing their block’ – and thinking virtually shuts down.

Now, for the third aspect of the definition – the expectation that the action will meet a need. Emotions are innate, they are purposeful (to get a need met), and they are below awareness in that they are pre-thought, pre language. Hunger carries an expectation eating will satisfy the need for food. Love carries the expectation that intimacy will satisfy a deep longing for such connection with another person. Expectation completes the sequence: emotion prepares us to do something; it carries an expectation of result; action usually results in the need being met. In this case the emotion is discharged, the expectation is fulfilled and validated (ready to have the same expectation again), and the need met. A healthy cycle, a characteristic of emotional wellness.

Does the world need another blogger?

Seems like I have answered my own question with this; a new blogger with his first post.

In a restaurant with a group of friends last week, the conversation revolved around the question: Why have people become so uptight? … just a minor upset and WOW they think it is full-on war. Good question, no simple answers.

My response was to explain what emotions are. Useful if we are discussing a general level of heightened emotion and an increasingly common response that does not fit the situation.  I noticed someone reaching for a pen; writing on the paper serviette, “Say that again slowly”. Before saying ‘it’ again slowly, another asked if I had a blog, to which I replied ” Does the world need etc …” Both affirmed that a blog providing this sort of information was surely needed. I was chuffed – and it sure beats trying to write on a serviette.

What sort of information is seen by my restaurant friends as useful? Well this blog will probably focus on emotions, and the way they influence everything we do. I guess I can claim some authority on the topic having won state and national awards for designing and implementing curriculum programs that have the development of emotion management at their core, and more recently becoming the first Australian qualified in a revolutionary approach to emotional health from the UK. Being in private practice as a therapist/counsellor gives me opportunity to keep current in what information is useful for people interested in keeping emotionally buoyant. Information that you may find useful in your contact with ‘up-tight people’.

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. This is a ‘given’ – no argument, no exceptions. Future blogs will flesh-out the implications of this definition, sufficient to say here that emotional arousal is linked with getting needs met, and it is possible to conclude that in a society with many vital emotional needs unmet, emotions will remain high. And as emotions are designed for action not thinking, chances are that clear-headedness will be absent as simple events trigger an outburst more appropriate in a war zone or the jungle than a city street.

There you have it. The world has another blogger whether it needs it or not.