By Alexandra Wilson (AMHSW; CSW; MAASW; BSW Usyd)
Unpleasant emotions are, well…unpleasant! Fear, sadness, hurt, pain, shame, loneliness etc can all feel horrible and trigger strong urges to try to get away from these feelings.
But have you ever stopped to wonder WHY we experience unpleasant emotions? Believe it or not, we experience distress for very good reasons! We can’t get rid of unpleasant emotions, but we wouldn’t want to, even if we could. Unpleasant emotions are a vital part of being a human being and they are designed to help us.
The purpose of fear is protection. When we feel fear, it prompts us to protect ourselves and/or the ones we love. Without fear we would not react to genuine danger. That would be disastrous!
Fear can sometimes mislead us though. Sometimes fear will tell our bodies we are in mortal danger, when we actually are not. That fear you get when giving a speech? The fear is designed to help you, but our brain is misinterpreting the threat level!
If you notice fear arising, ask yourself;
- Am I in physical danger (or are others)?
- If yes, protect yourself and others!
- If no, remind yourself you are safe and do the scary things anyway (this reduces the feelings of fear).
Hurt is an emotion designed to tell us when we should be careful with someone or something. Imagine you feel hurt every time you spend time with a certain friend…hurt might be trying to tell you something!
Hurt says, ‘be careful here’; ‘proceed with caution’. Hurt wants us to pay attention to what is happening, and protect ourselves if needed.
If you notice you are feeling hurt, ask yourself;
- Is hurt trying to tell me something important here?
- Do I need to be careful with something and proceed with caution?
Sadness is a very interesting emotion. Humans have sadness as a prompt to communicate and connect. Humans are social beings – people need people. Many of our emotions are designed to ensure we stay connected, and sadness is one of these.
When we experience the loss of a relationship or something important in our life, sadness is designed to communicate to others that we need support, and then strengthen social bonds with others.
Imagine you are a prehistoric human living with your prehistoric family, and something disastrous happens where you lose your family. Sadness and grief are designed to communicate to other humans that you need support. Then those people take you in, feed you, house you, and you will then survive. If you stay alone you will die. So in this way sadness ensures survival even when terrible things happen.
However, often when we experience sadness we do the opposite to what sadness wants us to do. Instead of communicating and connecting with others, we isolate and then feel even worse as a result.
If you notice sadness arising, ask yourself;
- Why might sadness be coming up? (Hint: sadness often arises when we’ve lost something or things are not the way we would like them to be)
- Who can I share this sadness with that can support me and offer me more connection?
Pain is a similar emotion to hurt, but more extreme and with some key differences in function. Pain tells us that we MUST change something we are doing. Pain is a huge motivator for change.
Consider a situation where someone is in a toxic relationship. Pain is what motivates them to get out of it. Consider someone trying to kick an addiction. Pain is what motivates them to stop. Pain can be a very good thing!
If you notice you are in pain, ask yourself;
- What is this pain telling me?
- What do I need to change?
Most of us wish we could get rid of unpleasant emotions when we are in them. However, if we can LISTEN to what our emotions are saying to us, we can use them to make wise decisions which build our long–term happiness. Thanks emotions!
If you or someone you care about is struggling with distress, please reach out. We are here to help.
Alexandra (Alex) Wilson holds a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Sydney (2003) and is the owner of Mindful Recovery Services. Mindful Recovery Services is a private practice providing psychological treatment and support for adolescents and adults. Alex is passionate about dispelling myths about mental illness and is highly skilled in dialectical behavioural therapy. She is an experienced public speaker and provides consultation to other professionals on managing difficult behaviours in teens. Alex lives on the NSW Central Coast with her partner, 2 young boys, and a cheeky puppy named Axel.