Emotions Revisited

Emotions are neither good nor bad – they just are. They cannot be otherwise, for they operate from that part of the brain clearly removed from the values and belief-driven executive function. Much confusion arises when we assume characteristics of mental processing on that part of the brain that operates below any level of awareness. The emotional brain, variously known as the primal brain, the subconscious, or more specifically, the limbic system, is value neutral – relying instead on the awareness (thinking) part of the brain to function in the person’s best interest. Like other living organisms, humans interact with their environment to get their needs met, and our best interests are served when the interplay of emotion and thinking lead to effective interaction and needs – physical and non-physical, being met appropriately.

As described in a previous blog (24.03.2011), emotions facilitate this interaction. They prepare us for action and carry an expectation that the action will meet a need. The crucial thing about emotions is not about  ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’,  but whether they are discharged effectively. A continuing state of emotional arousal or undischarged emotion reduces the brain’s processing capacity, places stress on the system, and raises the prospect of low mood instead of well-being.

So, given that emotions just are, how is one to handle this statement from a world authority on well-being, Martin Seligman (Flourish, Random House, 2011): Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is underway, that psychological capital is accumulating (p66).

My response, tentative at this stage, is that feelings – pleasant or otherwise – are much later along the stimuli-response sequence. Feelings are not simply emotions, nor are they the product of emotional arousal – they are the result of the successful interplay of emotion and thought resulting in needs being met and signs that growth is underway. Separate the emotion; recognising its function in the below-awareness phase of the sequence, and we are better able to focus on feelings or mood states, which clearly have good/bad, positive/negative dimensions.

This focus on feelings or mood states enables specific interventions at the stages that precede feeling good or bad. A focus that begins with a better understanding of emotions, contains an appreciation of the interplay between emotion, thought, action and feeling as discreet entities, and leads to successful interaction with the environment and needs being met. Growth instead of mere survival; flourishing, with more good moods than bad.

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.