What are Emotions
Emotions are sensations that we experience in response to particular life experiences. Some emotions are pleasant (joy, gratitude, confidence, contentment, excitement, curiosity) to experience, while others are rather unpleasant (anger, sadness, disappointment, jealousy, fear, guilt, shame). The emotions we experience are usually very complex and it is possible to feel a range of emotions in response to a particular life event.
Emotions influence our thoughts, which in turn determine our behaviour.
Regardless of whether an emotion feels pleasant or unpleasant, it is normal and important to experience all possible emotions in a situation. Experiencing difficult emotions is inevitable. Rather than to avoid dealing with them and then suffering when we eventually have to confront them, it is better to have the necessary knowledge and skills to face them up front in a positive manner. If we are unable to exercise control over our emotions, our thought processes will also be affected. This can in turn lead to the development of behaviours that are detrimental to ourselves and to the people around us.
Emotional health is the state of our inner world: the realm of emotions. Our emotional health determines what emotions we feel in response to a particular situation, influences our thoughts and ultimately our behaviour. Therefore, good emotional health is essential if we want to live a happy and healthy life.
Some of the key characteristics of good emotional health include:
- Appropriate emotional responses, which are in line with our values and belief systems.
- Having control over our behaviour.
- Being able to bounce back effectively from difficult situations.
Even experiencing unpleasant emotions can be healthy, as long as they are suitable and appropriate to a specific situation. Some examples of appropriate emotional responses, demonstrating good emotional health, are:
- Rafeh feels disappointed after failing an exam but is able to get over it and work hard for the next one.
- Aaliya is extremely saddened by the death of her aged mother. While she continues to grieve and mourn over time, she is also able to return to work and resume her daily routine after a week.
- Mansoor feels great joy at the birth of his first child and distributes sweets among his relatives.
- Rehma is angered by something a friend has done and decides to confront the friend in an assertive manner by discussing the problem with her.
Poor emotional health, in contrast, can be a result of feeling sad, stressed or upset for a long time and not dealing with it appropriately. It includes:
- Having an unsuitable or exaggerated emotional response to a situation.
- Exhibiting inappropriate behaviour.
- Difficulty dealing with setbacks that may be faced.
Some examples of inappropriate emotional responses, denoting poor emotional health, are:
- Rafeh is overwhelmed by disappointment after failing an exam and is unable to focus on the next ones.
- Aaliya is devastated by the death of the mother and has been mourning in her home for two months, being unable to go back to work.
- Mansoor becomes ecstatic after the birth of his first child and spends a lot of his money on the celebrations, resulting in great financial loss for the family.
- Rehma is enraged by her friend’s behaviour and decides to steal and burn her notebook.
In order to understand what can come in the way of our emotional health, it is important to develop an understanding of consciousness. Consciousness is challenging to explain since it has been interpreted in different ways by different philosophers and scientists. We think of consciousness as the state of being aware of our surroundings and our perception of our world. It determines how we understand and interact with the world around us. Our consciousness is shaped by our individual life experiences, particularly childhood experiences, which is why each of our consciousness is unique. It is our sense of self and consists of all the thoughts, feelings and memories that we have accumulated throughout life.
Our consciousness is made up of two parts: the conscious and the subconscious. If you imagine the consciousness to be a house, the conscious would be the ground floor and the subconscious the basement.
Our consciousness is made up of two parts: the conscious and the subconscious.
We are always on the ground floor of the house, so all the thoughts, feelings and memories that we are actively aware of are part of our conscious. For example, when you are sitting and reading this text, everything going on in your mind that you are cognizant of is part of the conscious and is present on the ground floor.
The subconscious (basement) is the repository of thoughts, feelings and memories that we aren’t aware of or have repressed since they may be associated with distressing experiences. In fact, whenever we experience a traumatic event, we unconsciously hide or push it into the basement. The subconscious is a finite space and even though it may seem that we have forgotten the undesirable experience and gotten over it, it lingers in the subconscious and continues to exert an influence over some aspect of our conscious life. For example, if a person has a childhood history of abuse, it is possible that they may have forgotten the actual event. This does not mean, however, that this person has come to terms with the distress produced by the abuse. At times, memories of these events that we have put in our subconscious can trigger negative emotions in the present.
Just like physical traumas are injuries that can affect our bodies, emotional traumas are the effects of adverse life experiences that can wound our consciousness. Some examples of emotional traumas we can experience are:
- Guilt is a common and perfectly justifiable reaction to a situation in which we have committed a mistake or offended someone. However, too much guilt can be toxic and can cause significant emotional distress.
- Rejection is a trauma that can cause great distress and can include being rejected from a job, a relationship etc.
- Embarrassment is something that can be experienced very often. We can feel embarrassed if someone makes fun of us or if we do something which is considered shameful in public.
- Failure is a trauma that all of us have experienced at some point in our lives. It can involve failure in an exam, to achieve something or to fulfil our goals. If not dealt with properly, failure can prove very damaging.
- Loneliness is considered by some as one of the worst emotional traumas affecting us. Loneliness is different from being alone. Being alone can mean that we are by ourselves with no one near us. Loneliness means being unable to connect and be understood by others, so it is possible to be lonely even if you are surrounded by people. Human beings are inherently social and being cut off from any form of community can be extremely damaging for us. Research has shown that people who are lonely face a greater risk of various physical and mental health problems and are more likely to die younger.
- Meaninglessness means finding life purposeless. It can be very distressing and demotivating and accompanies various life crises.
- Rumination is to dwell on some past event (usually distressing) over and over again, even if we can’t do anything about it. Rumination is a process in response to trauma and can cause us to enter into a vicious cycle of negative thoughts by losing focus on the present.
- Physical illnesses, especially chronic conditions, also cause great distress and can be a major emotional trauma for those affected and the people around them.
- Loss can be either material (money, property) or personal. Personal loss includes loss of a loved one through death, divorce or separation and can be extremely distressing to those affected.
- Abuse is any form of violence perpetrated against the sufferer. It can be domestic violence or child abuse (physical, verbal, sexual). It is a misconception that children forget as they grow up and can therefore be abused without any consequences. In fact, research has shown that child abuse is a major emotional trauma and sufferers with severe mental health problems often have a significant history of abuse. Domestic violence can include any family member abusing another. It is very traumatic not only for those affected but also the ones witnessing the violence.
- Poverty is another major emotional trauma and can be extremely distressing for those affected. It is estimated that poverty leads to a variety of health problems.
- War is a major emotional trauma since it leads to the destruction of life and property and displacement of people. It often results in several other heinous crimes (rape, genocide) which can be extremely distressing for those affected.
- Terrorism is a threat that is deeply distressing for those under its locus of control. It is not only traumatic for those directly affected by terrorist attacks, but also for those who live in constant fear of such attacks.
- Natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and tsunamis are also extremely distressing for those affected and can be major emotional traumas.
These experiences are difficult to address and talk about, partly because they are so painful and challenging for us to deal with, and partly because we may worry about how others will react to our difficulties. Society discourages us from talking about our emotional problems since people who are in touch with their emotions are considered to be weak. However, this may prove problematic, because just like untreated physical wounds can get infected when not taken care of, emotional traumas demand care. If not dealt with in a timely manner, they can form deep wounds in our consciousness.
’Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and come forth later in uglier ways.’ Sigmund Freud
If we don’t face our emotional problems (not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t know how to) and repress them, they will start building up in our subconscious until the basement becomes unable to hold them in. As a result, they will start coming up to the ground floor by manifesting in the conscious in the form of unexplainable periods of unhappiness and worry, leading to the deterioration of our emotional health and the development of mental health problems.
But how is it possible to confront emotional traumas? Is it possible to deal with something intangible like emotions, as compared to the palpable physical illnesses we are well versed in? In our society, there is a widespread emphasis on physical hygiene. When our hands are dirty, we wash them. When we are injured, we go to a doctor. But we often forget to look after our inner world. Emotional hygiene is the practice of looking after our emotions; it is about paying attention to and taking care of our emotional health to ensure that it doesn’t deteriorate and that we lead happy and functioning lives.
Even though this term may seem new to many, almost all of us practice emotional hygiene in our lives. We do this whenever we feel stressed. Many of the emotional hygiene practices are coping mechanisms, some of which are healthy and others that are rather unhealthy in the long run.
Some examples of healthy coping mechanisms are:
- Exercise is not only good for the body but it also causes our body to release endorphins which are hormones that may make us feel happy.
- Spiritual activities can be both religious (prayer, worship) or secular (yoga, meditation). If done properly and regularly, they can improve mental health and enhance wellbeing.
- Expressing yourself in a healthy manner and talking to people you trust.
- Socialising is always a great way to relieve stress. Hanging out and doing group activities with friends can be a great way to blow off some steam.
- Travelling offers a way for us to distance ourselves from traumatic situations and gives us time to reflect and find solutions for things that distress us.
- Hobbies give us an opportunity to distract ourselves and are a great way to de-stress and engage in an activity.
- Creative pursuits such as painting, dancing, poetry, art, music etc. offer us an avenue to channel our distress into something beautiful and significant which will continue to be a source of comfort for us and, perhaps, for others as well.
- Humour can be a great way to deal with distress. It can involve us listening to or watching something funny or indulging in humour ourselves. Humour, if used appropriately, can also serve to deal with an awkward moment or to defuse a tense situation.
- Altruism or helping others is also a very effective way to channel unpleasant emotions in a positive constructive manner. By helping others, we can minimize our own distress.
On the other hand, unhealthy coping mechanisms include:
- Anything in excess: even healthy activities become unhealthy if done in excess. For example, eating to relieve stress is fine, but if we do binge eating, it may cause us to become obese and is, thus, unhealthy.
- Self-harm involves hurting ourselves physically (cutting or burning) in order to distract ourselves from the pain within.
- Substance abuse constitutes using any substance (tobacco, drugs, alcohol) to deal with distress resulting in a dependance on it.
- Aggression is one of the most common unhealthy coping mechanisms we employ. If a boss is feeling stressed, he may displace his anger onto his employee or if a father is feeling stressed, he may express his anger at his children.
- Social withdrawal is utilized by people who are distrustful of people and think that they are better off alone. Isolation from people can lead to low self-esteem, misconceptions and incorrect interpretation of our traumas.
People suffering from mental illnesses often adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms since they need to deal with more intense emotions and these methods bring about the quickest form of relief. However, despite offering immediate relief, unhealthy coping mechanisms have severe and negative long-term consequences. If emotional traumas are not dealt with timely and appropriately, they can lead to negative emotions festering and leading to mental illness.
One of the most effective ways to deal with emotional traumas is to talk about these problems with close friends, family or loved ones. It is how all of us can practice emotional hygiene. The purpose of this activity is to:
- Bring the traumas from the subconscious to the conscious.
- Reflect upon them and come to terms with them.
- Prevent them from continuing to have a negative effect on our consciousness.
While almost everyone undergoes periods of distress and unhappiness at some point in their lives, not everyone develops a mental illness, as many of us practice emotional hygiene effectively and are able recover from our emotional traumas.
Find out more about how we can confront our own emotional traumas practically, and help others in confronting theirs, in our care section.