If you think our emotions are nothing more than feeling happy, sad or disgusted, you’re in for an eye-opening surprise! In reality, emotions are complex reaction patterns, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements that we use to process important events or subjects. They even allow us to build deeper connections to those around us by helping us to express a variety of complex feelings in different situations, without saying a word!
Emotions aren’t just controlled by one part of the brain; they come from all over, including the limbic system (the control center for our conscious and unconscious functions). This is why our bodies have such physical reactions to what we feel. You know that warmth coursing through your body as you hug a loved one? That’s the brain signaling a physical reaction!
But, have you ever asked yourself: why do we have emotions? Well, apart from emotions being quite helpful for socializing, and communicating with our friends and loved ones, they can play a huge role in helping us learn how to avoid potentially stressful situations! If insects make you feel anxious, you might feel queasy or short of breath if you see one in your room. This will encourage you to avoid those creepy crawlies and therefore avoid a potentially dangerous situation. If you skipped breakfast today, you may feel down or moody, with painful twinges in your stomach. This is your body telling you it is feeling stressed and needs more food to stay energized and sharp!
That’s not all our emotions do! Positive emotions, like the warm swell of pride in your chest when someone you admire compliments your work, or that sense of relief when something you’ve long been anticipating finally happens, encourages us to spend more time around those people and doing activities that evoke those nice feelings within us! We’re encouraged to want more positive encounters like this, which can help extend our social network and encourage us to be our best selves!
The impact of Emotions on Our Mental and Physical Health
Do you ever notice that unpleasant memories can sometimes feel stronger than good ones? Maybe you can remember a bad day at work more clearly months after, but struggle to recall the details of a nice day with friends? You’re not alone! This is actually caused by an evolutionary trait called the negativity bias. This means we’re more likely to remember bad emotions than good ones. The negativity bias is an important evolutionary trait that helped our hunter/gatherer ancestors to avoid danger. Before the days of painkillers, antibiotics, and Google, they needed to remember what plants were harmful because the wrong choice could mean one less for mammoth stew that evening! However, in the modern world, where our survival instincts don’t need to be as strong, the negativity bias can help us avoid similar uncomfortable or negative experiences from recurring. Our emotions are complex, yes. But, how can we manage them effectively?
Mastering Our Emotions
Remember when we talked about how emotions come from all over the brain? Well another is the cingulate cortex. This clever little piece of the puzzle is connected to both the emotional limbic system and the logical prefrontal cortex, making it the perfect go-between to help us learn from situations that made us feel happy or sad! If cooking a healthy dinner made you happy, your cingulate cortex would be in charge of having a meeting between the emotional and logical sides of your brain to say, “Okay, we like that, how do we make sure we do that again?” This makes it vital in the process of learning positive habits and unlearning negative ones!
Let’s take a look at some holistic methods to help us get in touch with this mental mediator to confront negative emotions and strengthen the positive ones through healthy lifestyle choices and mindfulness techniques!
Social — Talking about negative feelings with friends can help release the tensions you feel, and putting your problems out in the open can help make them seem smaller. It also allows the people who care about you to know what could be the best way to support you when you’re feeling down.
Physical — Your body functions best when it’s getting the attention and love it deserves. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night, eating healthily, drinking plenty of water, and frequent exercise can help your brain to work at peak efficiency!
Mental — The brain is the control center for the body, and if the control center is neat and tidy then it can be easier to wrangle control over the body’s other parts. A calm and healthy mind can give you the tools to see your world clearer. Talking to a mental health specialist, such as a therapist, can help give you an outside perspective on those thoughts, and an experienced hand to guide you back to yourself. You can also help build resilience to negative thoughts by doing yoga or tai chi. Yoga is a set of physical, mental and spiritual practices which aim to calm and control the mind. Sounds like something you’d like to try? Find more details on how to start here.
Environmental — As we discussed, our emotions are influenced by our environment, so listen to your body! (Click here to find out more!) Go to places and see people that make you feel good, and try to avoid ones that could elicit unhappy thoughts. A clean space can massively improve our mood. We also get bored easily if we’re in the same environment for too long. So redecorate your room! Move some furniture around, or take a day trip to a local landmark you haven’t seen before. It doesn’t have to be a big trip, even taking a walk around a local park you haven’t visited before. Take some time to explore your local area and you may feel a huge shift in your mood, as well as getting in that helpful daily exercise!
Economic — Studies have shown how financial worries are one of the main causes of stress in adults and with the cost of living soaring it’s no wonder! Being anxious that we won’t be able to cater to our basic needs like shelter and food goes straight to the primitive parts of our brain and makes that anxiety hard to shift. If you’re worried about money or unhappy in your job there are tons of free services to help ease your mind or increase your financial literacy by guiding you through healthy financial practices such as budgeting or investments.
Spiritual — Multiple studies have shown that journaling our feelings can help ease some negative thoughts by processing our feelings and putting them into perspective. Meditation can even increase blood flow to the cingulate cortex, helping it get even stronger and work more efficiently!
But how does this affect the negativity bias? You see, the pathways in our brains are a bit like walking through a lovely green field. The more you walk on the same patch of grass, the clearer the path will get. Our brains work just the same! The more you recall a positive memory, the more data our cingulate cortex is given, and the better your positive memory muscles will get! Similarly, the more senses we associate with a memory, the more regions of the brain are used to store the memory, and the easier it is to recall the feeling associated with it! A certain scent might make you remember your Mom’s cooking. A song on the radio might remind you of a great night out with friends.
So, next time you’re having a good time, something that you know you will want to remember, try picking out one thing you can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste. Then try to recall those five things the next day, and then a week after. All of this can help you to strengthen your positive memory muscles and help you be your very best self!