Base Camp - understanding emotions
Emotions are funny things. It’s easy to think that in a perfect world we’d all be able to act independently of our emotions – that we’d be able to stop them from affecting us at all. You may have seen films about people, robots, aliens who do not experience emotions – and are portrayed as having a superior intelligence or ability to think clearly as a result. But, think of the emotional desert that is Daniel Craig as James Bond. In truth, this leaves us mere humans at war with our own true emotions. We try not to have them – not to react, not to feel the way we do, stop ourselves from ever showing them – but try as we might we cannot get rid of them.
The truth is that emotions are actually an essential part of the way our brains were designed. We cannot escape them, or avoid having them – because in fact they are really important, and without them our brains just don’t work properly.
So what actually is an emotion? Can you remember the last time you felt a certain emotion – let’s start with anxiety. What was it about how you were feeling then that makes you label it now and say it was ‘anxiety’?
The anatomy of an emotion
Most people mention 4 key things that seem to be part of experiencing an emotion:
1. The first is some kind of physical feeling, like feeling butterflies in your stomach, or feeling your heart start to beat faster.
2. Then there’s a sensation of wanting to do something. That might be something like run away, or stand up to someone. It might make you more likely to do something – like making you feel very fidgety.
3. Emotions also affect the way we think – triggering certain thoughts and drawing our attention to what is going on.
4. Then there is something else which is really hard to describe – that elusive feeling when you just know you are having an emotion.
These four elements that make up emotional experiences give us some great clues about what the point of them is.
Emotions are the brain’s way of grabbing your attention
Emotions occur when certain combinations of things going on around you are identified as potentially significant – usually because they might affect your chances of achieving a goal stored within your brain. So that might be a basic goal like ‘staying alive’, or it might be something more complex like ‘passing my exams’ or grabbing lunch. If something happens which looks like it might have an impact on the chances of you achieving a goal – say you step out into the road and a bus is about to hit you – then your brain basically triggers an emotion to alert you.
Emotions try to get you to DO something!
An emotional response sets your body up in case you might need to react. So, having inadvertently stepped in front of that bus, you find yourself suddenly poised to jump out of the way, heart racing in case you need to run. Emotions don’t make us act, but they do make us more likely to make a certain response. This is good if a bus is driving at you. But also, if something has made you angry, you are much more likely to shout at someone – even if it doesn’t happen to be the person who made you angry in the first place.
Emotions influence our decision making
Because of the way we feel when we’re experiencing an emotion, it influences how likely we are to consider certain options. Think about it - if you’re faced with a decision that has a few options, and just thinking about one of them makes you feel incredibly nervous – you are much less likely to take that option. In this way emotions influence our decisions and help to simplify the bewildering array of choices we have to make every day.
Emotions are triggered when something significant is going on
Emotions can be unpredictable. In fact a bunch of people experiencing the same event can all react totally differently to it. You may have experienced that yourself – when something happens and you find it incredibly emotional, but someone else who is with you doesn’t bat an eyelid. Emotions are triggered when your brain identifies something going on around you which might be significant – to you!
So your emotional reactions depend on things you’ve learned from past experiences as well as stuff going on for you now, and the hopes and dreams you have for the future. They also depend on the kind person you are. Some personality types leave us more prone to certain emotions or just more emotional in general. Some people’s emotions are very visible, whilst others keep theirs more hidden. Emotions can be inconvenient, undesirable, leading you to feel things you’d rather not feel and do things you’d rather not do. But whoever you are, assuming you are human (and not Daniel Craig) you will experience emotion, whether you like it or not.
Looking to the Master...
We’ve all messed up at some time with our emotions – all had emotions we’d rather not have, or done things we wish we hadn’t done. Knowing how to react and how to get the best out of our emotions isn’t easy. But if you want to find an example of how to get it right there’s an obvious place to look. Jesus is a great example of what it is to be human, and how to handle our emotions. Jesus was God made man – God in a human body – the body He designed! He was without sin – but still had emotions; so we know that the things he experienced are part of being a normal healthy human. We can also look at how he responded to his emotions and treat it as a kind of master-class.
Jesus experienced a whole range of emotions including love (Mark 10v21), grief (John 11v33-35), joy (Luke 10v21), anger (Mark 11v12-17), frustration (Mark 8v12) and sorrow (Matthew 26v37-38). Emotions like these are not sinful – but we do need to be careful about how we react to them. In some ways the biggest risk of emotions is that we will try to fight them – instead of just accepting them and trying to work out what is triggering them. Jesus always seemed to give himself the time and space to let his emotions out. Having said that, you wouldn’t ever describe Jesus as being controlled by His emotions – they never overtook Him, or made him do anything wrong. Jesus calmly accepted his emotions and let them influence the way he responded to those around him. We can learn a lot from Him.