Why Do We Feel Sad, Angry or Scared?

04/03/2012 20:27 GMT | Updated 04/05/2012 10:12 BST

As the Dalai Lama says: "Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer." If this is true (and I firmly believe it is), why do we feel 'negative' emotions like fear, anger, sadness or hatred? Take fear, for example, which manifests as anxiety in problems such as agoraphobia, panic disorder or social phobia (the fear of interacting with other people, especially strangers or groups). Feeling severe anxiety is no fun at all: your heart races, your mind goes blank or is filled with catastrophic thoughts, you get sweaty, dizzy, breathless and generally freaked out.

So why on earth do we feel these uncomfortable feelings? Wouldn't we be much better off with only 'positive' emotions like love, joy, satisfaction or pride? Well, actually, no - we'd all be in big trouble. To understand why our negative emotions are so important - and why millions of years of evolution have hard-wired humans to feel them - you need to know what they're for.

Take anger, a perfectly natural emotion but one which, when distorted, causes untold suffering (violent crime, war, terrorism, domestic violence). This highly charged emotion is inextricably linked to our fight-or-flight response, a threat-protection mechanism that's triggered by a primitive part of our brain. When we feel under threat, this powerful response kicks in, readying us in microseconds to either fight or flee.

If our brain decides fighting is the best option, it sends a ripple of anger throughout our body which, along with a healthy shot of adrenaline and the blood pumping to our major muscles, readies us for action. If we're confronted by a gang of thugs, and fleeing seems rather more sensible, we feel a powerful surge of fear. This tells us that fighting is a very bad idea and it's time to make a swift exit.

So powerful negative feelings are simply an emotional alarm bell, propelling us into action. Without these feelings, our lives would be rather short and we would be rubbish parents, because this threat-protection system also warns us of impending danger to our loved ones - as any parent whose child has veered towards a busy road can testify. We feel a jolt of fear and grab them before we're even conscious of what we're doing.

In fact, our problems start when we develop an 'aversive' reaction to these emotions - thinking, for example, that we should never get angry, or that it's somehow a sign of weakness to feel sad. We then find ways of suppressing those emotions, which means they churn away inside, causing all sorts of problems for our physical and psychological health.

The key, then, is to accept that all emotions - whether they feel good or not - are there for a reason. Trying to deny them is a surefire route to unhappiness.

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