Emotions – Why do we have them?
By: Debra Hoffman, PhD.
Picture this. You are at work putting the finishing touches on an important project before the deadline. You receive a text from your friend telling you that he needs to talk about something important later. Suddenly, you start to sweat and search your memory for recent situations with your friend that may have caused a problem. First, you think of how you cancelled on him last minute a few weeks ago and you feel guilty – maybe you owe him an apology? Or, maybe he is still angry about that critical comment you made about his girlfriend? Now, your heart is beating faster and you start imagining angry responses to this possible concern (“How could he still be angry about that?! It is so unfair! Will he ever get over it?”). Your face feels hot and your fists are clenched. Maybe he is going to share some positive news? Yes, that would be great! You look at the clock and realize that you just spent ten minutes reacting to your friend’s text. In addition, your body is tense, your mind is racing, and you are completely distracted from your important deadline. You think to yourself, “Why do I even have emotions? I wish I could just get rid of them!”
The purpose, function, and even the definition of “emotion” has been the subject of debate and extensive research in the field of psychology. All agree that being able to identify and regulate one’s emotions is a key skill in maintaining one’s mental health. Why is this? Emotions serve an essential communication function. They allow others to know what is happening to you, which can be helpful in promoting connection in relationships. When your friend sees that you are sad, he or she can try to support you. If there is an emergency, the frightened look on your face can propel those around you to pay attention and respond accordingly.
Perhaps equally important, is the information that emotions can give you to guide your own decision-making. Anger can signal when you have been treated unfairly or been disrespected. It can prepare you to stand up for yourself if you need to. Guilt can signal that you have behaved outside your value system and might need to apologize or try to repair the relationship. Happiness lets you know that something is going well and motivates you to recreate the experience in the future.
One challenge is trying to determine if your emotional reaction has been minimized or exaggerated by your own interpretation of a situation. Some people are born with a more reactive nature which can cause emotions to be set off more easily and last for a longer period of time. Sometimes families tend to emphasize certain emotions and collectively avoid others, leaving individuals feeling confused about their experience. If you are finding that you are often consumed with negative emotions, feel uncomfortable with experiencing emotions, or have been told you are “too emotional”, you might consider seeking therapy. You may contact Behavioral Health Partners (BHP) to set up an appointment with a mental health professional who can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. You can reach BHP by calling (585) 276-6900.
Behavioral Health Partners is part of Well-U, offering mental and emotional health services for stress, anxiety and depression to eligible individuals and dependents.