Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being

By | June 5, 2013

Don’t try to have all positive emotions as the “negative” ones exist for good reasons.

Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts actually harbored more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue. …

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm

Here’s a list of negative emotions grouped in five main categories.

Sadness (depression, despair, hopelessness, etc.)
Anxiety (fear, worry, concern, nervous, panic, etc.)
Anger (irritation, frustration, annoyance, rage, etc.)
Guilt
Shame/Embarrassment
These emotions are generally motivators of behavior or behavioral change. If they are appropriately firing,–that is, if you are mentally healthy–they help us survive and even thrive. As social animals our emotions are useful for motivation, communication and self-validation. For example:
  • Anxiety tells you to prepare.
  • Guilt motivates you to learn from the past.
  • Shame/Embarrassment help you fit in with your tribe.
  • Anger helps motivate you to fight.
  • Sadness signals to your tribe that you need help and motivates change.

The evolutionary reason for sadness is not immediately obvious, but it does exist for a good reason.

Sadness is not usually valued in our current culture. Self-help books promote the benefits of positive thinking, positive attitude, and positive behaviors, labeling sadness as a “problem emotion” that needs to be kept at bay or eliminated.

Evolution must have had something else in mind, though, or sadness wouldn’t still be with us. Being sad from time to time serves some kind of purpose in helping our species to survive. Yet, while other so-called “negative emotions,” like fear, anger, and disgust, seem clearly adaptive—preparing our species for flight, fight, or avoidance, respectively—the evolutionary benefits of sadness have been harder to understand…until recently, that is.

With the advent of fMRI imaging and the proliferation of brain research, scientists have begun to find out more about how sadness works in the brain and influences our thoughts and behavior. Though happiness is still desirable in many situations, there are others in which a mild sad mood confers important advantages.

Findings from my own research suggest that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.

… The benefits of sadness have their limits, of course. Depression—a mood disorder defined, at least in part, by prolonged and intense periods of sadness—can be debilitating. And no one is suggesting that we should try to induce sadness as a way of combating memory decline, for example. Research does not bear out the benefits of doing this.

Sadness can improve your memory, your judgement, etc. but not too much sadness.

More people die from suicide than from murder and war combined, throughout the world, every year.

Why would evolution allow this behavior to exist? Wouldn’t suicide eventually weed out suicidal genes? One theory says the genes for depression are linked to those allowing the body to mount a strong immune response. In other words, the deep depression may be just along for the ride as with some of our current vestigial organs.

It turns out that depression may not be a mere trade-off for a vigorous immune response. Dr. Miller suggests that depressive symptoms like social withdrawal, lack of energy, and a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities were actually advantageous to our ancestors. For example, a loss of energy might ensure that the body can leverage all of its energy to fight an infection. Also, social withdrawal minimizes the likelihood of being exposed to additional infectious agents. In this way, Drs. Miller and Raison note that “depressive symptoms are inextricably intertwined with — and generated by — physiological responses to infection that, on average, have been selected as a result of reducing infectious mortality across mammalian evolution.”

via TheAtlantic

See other posts on this site for more on depression if you are experiencing it.

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