Why We Feel What We Feel (Part One)

Why We Feel What We Feel (Part One)

by Dr Emma Gray - 28th October, 2014

We have evolved to feel, therefore our emotions must serve a function, one intended to enhance our chances of survival. If we can understand a little more about why we experience certain emotions it better places us to tolerate and respond to them in ways that improve our lives, rather than feeling overwhelmed by them and responding in ways that don’t.

Emotions enable us to navigate through life
In essence it would seem that the function of emotions is to enable us to navigate through life, getting our needs met along the way. In order for emotions to serve their intended function we must first learn to tolerate them rather than attempting to switch them off either by dismissing them as a sign of weakness, or by engaging in self defeating behaviours in response to them e.g. substance misuse and avoidance.

Secondly we must learn to express our emotions in an adaptive and assertive way that ensure our needs are met without this having a detrimental effect on the needs of others.

There are 4 emotions
Human beings can feel 4 emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Anger and Anxiety. All the other words we use to describe how we feel are variations on these core emotions.

The Function of Happiness is to alert us to something in our environment that is good for us and to motivate us to do more of that thing.

The Function of Sadness is to focus all our attention on the source of our distress and motivate us (via the discomfort that we feel) to process and resolve this e.g. the loss of a love one.

The Function of Anxiety is to alert us to a perceived risk and motivate us to prepare for a challenge.

The Function of Anger is to alert us to the fact that our needs are not being met (either psychological or physical), that we are being mistreated in some us (sometimes by ourselves) and motivate us to address this.

Emotions are a necessary part of our existence, without them our species would not have survived this long. So when we are diagnosed as suffering from anxiety or depression instead of assuming that there is something wrong with us and reaching for the psychiatric medication to correct this, a more effective and longer term solution would be to consider the context of our distress, why we feel the way we feel.

This is one of the first things that Clinical Psychologists and Counselling Psychologists will help you to do when you begin a course of therapy. It is often the case that our emotions start to make sense when we look at the thoughts that are triggering them, so once a therapist has considered your environment in the search for the reason behind your feelings, they will also be interested to find out about your perception of it.

Therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) look explicitly at the link between our thoughts and feelings to help individuals quickly uncover why they feel what they feel.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleague once described me as natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


Read more about my approach to counselling here...


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