Fitness Magazine

The Power of Negative Emotions

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

The Power of Negative Emotions

Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Henri Rousseau

“All organisms capable of long-term memory are necessarily oriented toward the future. A feature of memory apparently unique to humans, however, is the degree to which the decisions and plans that we make are based on representations that are future oriented—imaginings of specific events located forward in time .” —Stanley B. Klein, et al
The other day Brad told me about an interesting article he read about how evolution has wired us to plan for the future: Facing the future: Memory as an evolved system for planning future acts. Apparently our ability to plan for the future is one of the qualities that made us so successful as a species. During the hunter-gather era, worry about the future helped us stockpile food for the winter and eventually led to the development of agriculture. And we also made plans to avoid repeating dangerous mistakes, for example, organizing hunting parties to take down large animals rather than hunting solo or creating weapons to protect ourselves after suffering from a traumatic experience of being attacked. In fact, this ability to plan for the future is said to be the basis for most—if not all—modern civilization, including the development of writing and our various systems of laws and forms of government. 
“Evidence of complex planning in the human lineage dates back hundreds of thousands of years—for example, organized hunting parties; the creation and transportation of tools; technology; the burying of the dead and provision of supplies for an afterlife; the development of agriculture and with it the village, city, state, and nation (for reviews, see Boyer, 2001; Donald, 1991, 2001; Dunbar, 1996; Gibson & Ingold, 1993; Johnson, 2003; Mithen, 1996; Mum-ford, 1934; Passingham, 1982). Much of human mental life and the cultural products that it produces—norms, written and material resources, symbolic representation, abstract thought, science, religion, social complexities—derives in part from our capacity to orient toward, and plan with respect to, an uncertain but potentially controllable future (e.g., Donald, 1991; Lombardo, 2008). —Stanley B. Klein, et al 
I told Brad that this made me think about how strong so many of our negative emotions are and how those negative emotions might be related to a strong urge to plan for the future. Of course we all know that anxiety, fear, and anger in the present motivate us to make future plans. But past experiences and the negative emotions associated with them also help us plan for the future. Many studies have indeed shown that the experiences from our life that we tend to remember most clearly are those associated with the most emotion.  
“Emotional events are often remembered with greater accuracy and vividness (though these two characteristics do not always go together) than events lacking an emotional component (Reisberg & Hertel, 2005). This enhanced memory for emotional events has been attributed to interactions between the amygdala and other neural areas such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (PFC) (Cahill & McGaugh, 1996). The amygdala is active during emotional situations, and this activity influences the encoding and consolidation of the memory trace for the emotional event (see LaBar & Cabeza, 2006; Phelps, 2004, for a review).”  —Tony W. Buchanan from Retrieval of Emotional Memories
And negative feelings in particular seem to be powerful. Doesn’t it seem to you that some of your negative feelings (fear, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt, grief) feel more intense than some of the positive feelings you’d prefer to experience (peacefulness, joy)? Or that events from your past when you felt strong negative emotions are seared into your brain even decades later? (Haha, I still feel guilty about spilling paint on Sue Tober’s dress in first grade and then not coming clean when the teacher asked who had done it.) 
This may very well be due to the fact that evolution has wired us to plan for the future. Shame, guilt, anger, and grief about the past teaches us not to make the same mistakes and to take steps to create a future with potentially different outcomes. 
In summary, researchers are increasingly appreciating that careful theoretical and empirical consideration of all three temporal possibilities—past, present, and future—is essential if one hopes to understand the evolved functions of the human memory system. Indeed, it is possible that memory enabled humans to be aware of the future before they were able to consciously experience the past. However, regardless of whether that proposal turns out to be correct, an understanding of the inherently future-oriented nature of information processing appears increasingly essential for the study of human memory.” 
The problem is that many of the urges and impulses that served us well from an evolutionary perspective are not beneficial in modern society. For example, being drawn to fatty and calorie-rich foods served us well as hunter-gatherers but in modern society where we have easy access to a surfeit of calories, our natural food preferences can lead to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. The same is true for the negative emotions that once helped us to survive. Now we often struggle with the same negative emotions transferred onto non-life threatening frustrations, such as road rage, performance anxiety, panic over work deadlines, and shame and guilt over minor mistakes.
Fortunately we also evolved with a capacity for self-awareness. Our witness mind (see The Power of Svadhyaya (Self Study), Part 1 and Working with the Witness) allows us to observe ourselves when we’re experiencing these emotions both during and after the events that trigger them. We can then decide whether or not we should take action or not. And the practice of “holding space” as described in Holding Space, A Hospice Nurse on Yoga for Grief, and Yoga for Grief, Anger, and Shame allows us to be with these difficult emotions in safe environment when we can really take our time to use our witness mind to observe the emotions and associated memories and how they are affecting us. Sometimes the feeling is a message that calls for a reaction. Other times it is a primal response that we need to resolve within ourselves rather than by taking action. And sometimes there seems is a mixture of both, some actions to take and some feelings to resolve within ourselves. In his post Aparigraha (Non-Hoarding) and Healthy Aging, Ram says that for feelings that we decide not to act on, we need to learn to let go of these feelings:  
“We tend to fill our minds with fear, worry, anxiety, grief, anger, rage, jealousy, and judgments, among others, and we do not let go of these emotions. Over time, these emotions—whether they are bitterness, fear, emotional damage, rejection or abandonment—build up. If you hoard/accumulate unexpressed or suppressed emotions and if they are not getting released, they keep building up in your body.” 
In that post, he recommends meditation to help with this. Stress management practices will also help you cool these fiery emotions.
I'll end by saying that it's not just "negative" emotions that are so powerful. Love is also a very intense emotion. From an evolutionary perspective, this intense emotion helps us stay bonded our parents and later to find a a partner to raise our own children with. And it also motivates us to care for and protect our children, family members, and other loved ones.
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