Murky water is turbid; let it settle and it clears.
- Lui Yiming, Awakening to the Tao
This may be a familiar scenario: You're feeling in an awful, low mood. Everything requires so much effort. Work is a drag, people are tiresome, even your friends are being a bit demanding, or aren't there when you need them. Your life is a dreadful mess, you're getting nowhere, you'll never be happy again. Within days you're struck down by 'flu'. A sore throat, throbbing sinuses, runny nose and so on. Maybe, you wonder, maybe this was why I felt so bad. Another case: it's a Sunday and your partner is being unusually prickly. After what seems like an age they have lunch and the bad mood mysteriously lifts. Or take the approaching Autumn. I love autumn. I love the light. But I also get a little depressed. In my more aware moments I put this down to the shortening days and cold weather. Still, I cannot escape the feeling that something more profound is happening. That I'm yet another year older. Another year in which I have not quite got to where I should be. And then a draft of cold gritty air blasts in my face and suddenly I feel, somehow, very lonely.
In all of the above cases there is a process happening that, if we look into it, can make such experiences easier to deal with and allow us to step back with a little equanimity. Not to detach from what is happening, but to experience such moments with a fuller appreciation. For in each case a physical experience is being processed - sight, sound, touch, smell, as well as more subtle senses like intero- and immuno-ception. Yet instead of reading these sensations for what they are: i.e. 'my immune system is fighting an infection, therefore my energy reserves are being depleted', or 'I'm hungry and I don't really have the energy to deal with my partner right now', or 'it's getting colder and darker, I should start preserving my resources'; instead we begin to interpret this information mentally: we make extra stuff up, we read into things, make a big deal of it. It works the other way too of course: when we're feeling physically good - following the holy trinity of eating, sleeping and exercising well - our mood is more stable and thinking clearer, somehow less emotional. And this is perhaps the key, because as we'll see shortly, the work of our our emotions is to tell us about our physical state.
We put a lot of faith in our emotions. Often they seem like the realest thing we experience. Our culture is all about the emotions: Films, stories, box-sets, dramas, soap operas...so often just a lot of people expressing, or suppressing, various emotions. The problem with emotions is that we take them at face value, they become our reality. If we feel sad or depressed we can become convinced that there is something profoundly wrong with our lives, that we have no worth. If we're angry we may be convinced that everyone is against us personally. If we're anxious the world can seem hostile and uncertain with some catastrophe always just moments away. And yet a good night's sleep, a holiday, a much needed sandwich, some exercise, a few simple words and - like some magic spell - the emotion is often gone, and with it the mental rumination and runaway, cyclical thoughts that go with it. Reality is changed.
So, are emotions real? Of course, real in the moment we're experiencing them. Are they to be trusted? That's another question. For every book that tells you to master your feelings there is another telling you to follow your emotions. But why do we actually have emotions in the first place? Do we all have similar emotions? How come some cultures seem so happy, and some so resistant to fear and fatigue? A lot of these questions are tackled in a book I recently mentioned, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. In it, Prof. Barrett introduces the theory of constructed emotion which, put simply, states that emotions are not universal, not some biologically hardwired thing that we humans are born with. Rather, emotional experience is actually something our minds make up, usually on the spot, usually in a conditioned way, and usually to fulfill some 'survival' goal. This is not to belittle our emotional world, but actually to look at it in a different way: a storm of makeshift messages - actually predictions - from our bodies, our senses. Messages we often misinterpret.
To get a better idea of how emotions are made we need to go back to basics, including our old friend the survival instinct. As mentioned elsewhere our bodies need energy to survive and thrive, and as such have evolved to be very efficient at managing it. Moreover our brains have also evolved mechanisms to prevent us wasting our energy. Certain networks in our brain make constant predictions based on information coming from our senses, including our internal senses - such as the endocrine, nociceptive (pain), immune and 'enteral' (gut) senses - also known as 'interoception'. These predictions help us conserve our energy. They act like an early warning system. This is why, for example, we feel hunger way before we're near starvation, or cold even though there's little chance of freezing. Similarly we may feel fatigue even though we have plenty of energy 'in the tank', or feel pain well in advance of any actual physical damage being done.
This is where the theory gets even more interesting, because these networks that predict and manage our energy expenditure, and that predict fatigue and potential damage, are the same ones that handle our emotions. Our emotional experience is therefore one of our brain's ways of telling us about what is going on in our bodies. Emotions are that invisible bridge between our thinking minds and our subtle physical processes. They are the brain's attempt to let us know, for example, that we may be coming down with a cold, or that it's been a while since we last ate, or that we could probably do with some rest and so on. In this model fatigue is as much an emotional state as a physical one - it is the brain's prediction that we're low on energy, expressing itself through low mood and a lack of drive. And most of us are familiar with 'hanger'. What about emotions that are to do with others, such as loneliness, heartbreak, or Gezellig (the Dutch word for cosy, warm experience shared with others)? Well, what could be more important to our own 'energy levels' than the energy of others?
What is still mysterious is how this process also seems to go the other way: how our emotions also feedback to those subtle processes in our bodies. Our immune system, our hormones, our gut, our perception of pain are all affected by our emotional states. Chronic emotional states can lead to physical disease when these processes are not appreciated. What is clear is that we do ourself a disservice by separating our emotions from our bodies, by treating them as something separate.
There is a further twist here: our emotions are almost entirely conditioned by our experience, our learning, by society. Therefore how we communicate with our bodies is also affected by these things. If we grew up in a culture which doesn't have a varied emotional range - or suppresses emotions - we are unlikely to be able to listen to our bodies with much skill. A traumatic personal history or upbringing with a lot of 'high expressed emotion' will likewise affect our emotional constructs (how we make emotions up moment to moment). As a result the signals we receive from our bodies - our senses - will also be interpreted according to these constructs. So we may, for instance, be adept at 'numbing out' or ignoring the messages from our bodies. Or we may react to the subtlest of signals with overwhelming emotions. Or react with a default emotion - like anger - to a range of different sensations. Or we may - like a practiced athlete or yogi - be well attuned to our physical and emotional world: to be able acknowledge and listen to what is happening and not hold on to any particular state. To, as it were, flow with our emotions and make them our allies.
One suggestion in the book was to see if we can develop our emotional range - our emotional granularity. The point is not to suppress or ignore emotions, they are here anyway. Instead, how can we better read into our feelings? In any particular emotional experience what other feelings are present and how do they change? How best to describe what is happening? (If you have the time it is worth checking out this list of 'untranslatable' words from across the world related to well-being: https://www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography)
If there was one message I took home from How Emotions Are Made it was that my emotions are an opportunity to check into my body. Especially when I am experiencing uncomfortable or difficult emotions it is a chance to pause and see if my body is trying to tell me something. Am I tired, hungry, not feeling too well? Is it just a bit cold out, am I in an unfamiliar part of town, it it late and time for bed? Rather than dismissing or 'conquering' my emotions they can be seen as a valuable way of bridging that all-too stubborn mind-body divide. They may not be 'right', they may have little to do with what it actually going on around me, but they are telling me something, and with practice I can get better at listening. Of course other people or events may well indeed be pushing my buttons, but I can't control them. I can listen to my body however, and it is something I do not do nearly enough. So next time you're buffeted by strong emotions you might want to also try having a listen: getting beneath the mental chatter - the 'monkey mind' - and its astonishing array of ideas about what might be going on, and go into the body. The emotional bridge that all too often separates our minds from our bodies can be used instead to join them.
- H James, 2018