All emotions carry important messages for people — even uncomfortable emotions such as fear, guilt, worry and regret. When people are able to identify the messages their emotions have for them, they can respond, release the emotion and move on productively.
However, many have not been taught how to cultivate awareness of their moment to moment emotional state. With that in mind, how could they decipher the messages their emotions have for them?
What is an Emotion?
Emotions are states of mind that result from a person's mood, circumstances, or interactions with others.
But what is the basic science behind emotions? Neurochemical responses in the brain, communicated throughout the body, produce these states of mind.
Essentially, the brain detects environmental triggers and responds by producing chemicals that show up as sensations in the body. This is an ongoing process — humans are constantly taking in information from the environment and responding to that information.
It takes the brain about 1/4 second to identify the trigger and another 1/4 second to produce the chemicals. Each neurochemical response lasts approximately six seconds. That means that extended emotional states are the result of ongoing thoughts and attention to the situation that elicited the emotion. Since the neurochemicals are released throughout the body, they form a feedback loop between the brain and the body.
Fear is deeply rooted in the evolution and survival of the human species. If people didn’t feel fear, they wouldn’t protect themselves from physical harm. From an evolutionary standpoint, without fear of predators on the Savannah, humans would not have survived as a species.
So needless to say, fear serves an incredibly important function for human survival. However, today most people do not encounter threats to their physical survival regularly.
As soon a person feels fear, the very old reptilian part of the brain (called the amygdala) kicks in. The amygdala signals the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to set off a series of events in the body.
- Stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol are released.
- Heart rate increases.
- Blood pressure goes up.
- Breath quickens.
- Blood flows away from the heart out towards the extremities, preparing the body for action.
Basically the higher functioning, executive thinking brain shuts down and the body takes over, preparing for the threat. This is known as the fight or flight response. More recently, psychologists documented a third response to threat — and that is to freeze.
Fear isn't just about Survival
Despite the change in circumstances, the human fear response can be triggered by mental and emotional threats in the environment. These threats include such events as conflicts with a colleague, tests, or public speaking.
For example, a parent, unhappy with his son’s baseball position, yelled at the volunteer dugout mom during a game. Her response was stunned silence. In these “threatening” situations, she freezes. To bring her brain back online, she breathes deeply, giving an “all is ok” sign to her brain and body.
There are significant negative impacts of experiencing fear as a chronic state. Many experience this fear as a result of ongoing mental and emotional threats in their personal and professional lives.
Basically, people today are living in an emergency state a lot of the time. No organism can sustain health when it is in emergency mode all the time.
Guilt is an important emotion — it lets people know when they are out of alignment with their own values. Guilt helps people get back on track — to correct mistakes and prevent future problematic behavior.
For example, the guilt a mom feels about how much time her 9-year old son spends using technology can be helpful - why? Because it shows her she is out of alignment with her own values about how he should spend his time. She believes he needs more outdoor, creative, and social time in order to develop into a well-rounded and engaged person.
While her guilt provided her with important information, if it hangs around too long, it could cause a weakened immune system and increased stress hormones.
A little bit of worry can be helpful. If someone is worried about a test, it may prompt her to study more. However, persistent worry can lead to generalized anxiety disorder. Additionally, when left unchecked it can trigger the same fight, flight or freeze response discussed above.
Instead of asking how to stop worrying, perhaps ask what message the worried thoughts have for the worrier. Are the thoughts letting him know that he has not prepared properly for an upcoming event?
For example, it is helpful to someone who has a big public speech coming up soon to worry that she will flop. Her worry will propel her to practice, practice, practice and prepare properly.
Regret is an emotional state where someone blames themselves, feels a sense of loss at what could have been, or wishes they could rewind the clock and get a “re-do”. As with fear, guilt and worry, regret has its place. It provides important information on what not to repeat. However sustaining a feeling of regret can lead to chronic stress, lowering the immune system and overall well-being.
Most people have made choices in their lives that have caused regretful feelings, from which they have learned. For example, a busy woman may regret not putting energy and attention into her long-term friendships. The feeling of regret may propel her to reach out and re-establish meaningful connections with these lifelong friends.
As a recap, when identified and acted upon productively, fear, guilt, worry and regret are helpful emotions.
- Fear helps people survive.
- Guilt shows people where they’ve strayed from their value system and/or made a mistake.
- Worry helps people prepare for upcoming events.
- Regret lets people know where they want to make changes.
However, if left unaddressed, these emotions can snowball and lead to more intense negative emotional, mental and physical states. Research has shown that chronic negative emotional states lead to inflammation, a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart disease.
The trickiest part of navigating these chronic negative emotional states is that people have varying degrees of awareness of them. Perhaps the emotional states are stored from many years ago in the subconscious. Or someone may feel a sense of dis-content or internal jitters but not be able to put their finger on the source of the feeling.
In one example, a person had a dropping sensation of anxiety in her chest that would come every 5-10 seconds for several years before she even became aware of it. This taxed her body and mind without her being aware of it!
What You Can Do for Your Fear, Worry, Guilt and Regret
- Practice mindfulness: Become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations, without judgment, on a moment to moment basis.
- Engage in meditation: Even 5 minutes a day will help you calm down more easily when triggered.
- Journal: Handwrite 1-3 pages every morning.
- Try our Dissolve Fear, Guilt, and Worry audio program to help you reprogram these negative chronic emotional states.