Emotions affect more than you may realize — motivation, learning, decision making, connection, and so much more.
There are many times, often during periods of great challenges, that emotions can feel more like a burden than a blessing.
But emotions can be powerful.
They can help you survive, grow, and connect with others. And they can guide your decisions, behaviors, and motivations.
As babies, emotions are how you learn to communicate, even before you can talk.
While intense emotions can feel like a lot, without them, life can feel bland, muted, and empty. Emotions are an integral part of being human.
Emotions don’t always get the reputation that they deserve.
When you do show emotions, some people may see it as a sign of weakness. When you show too much emotion, people may criticize you for being “too emotional.”
But emotions can play a role in many aspects of life including:
- growth and development
- higher levels of awareness
- learning and memory
- decision making and problem solving
- guiding behaviors
- connection and attachment to others
- overall well-being
“Emotions matter because they typically dictate what will come next from us,” says Chelsea Viñas, licensed marriage and family therapist, owner of Therapize, a virtual private practice working with women in leadership on impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and trauma.
“How you feel about an event will usually lead to your behavior,” Viñas adds.
You can think about a time when you felt burned out and disappointed versus one where you felt excited and happy. Your entire day — including your behaviors, how you felt physically and mentally, and your attention — could all be affected by your emotions.
What does the research say about the importance of emotions?
small 2014 studysuggested that emotions can influence how we think, make decisions, and solve problems, especially with thinking tasks.
- In a
2021 research review, researchers explained how emotions are a way humans evolved to address problems in a constantly changing world. They helped us develop abilities to find food, water, shelter, sexual mates, support, and stay safe from dangers.
- Emotions may also strongly affect our attention and memory, according to a
2017 review. When we have strong emotions or emotional events, we will often pay attention in more detail and remember things more clearly, for longer. This could be why traumatic events stick with us so vividly.
Even negative emotions matter. They’ve helped us survive as a species by focusing our attention on danger and readying the body for a response. Fear urges us to fight or flee, anger tells us to attack, and guilt may teach us to learn from our mistakes.
While no one wants to be sad or angry, negative emotions are still important. They’re also at the core of many mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, so it’s crucial to address and regulate them.
You will always feel emotions, even if you don’t understand them, address them, or accept them. But it helps when you do.
In cultures or societies where people are told that being “too emotional” is a bad thing, it can be difficult to express what you’re feeling.
Viñas says that people also often judge their own emotions: I shouldn’t be crying. I can’t believe this still bothers me.
“When you’re able to recognize your emotion for what it is — a piece of information at that moment in time in your life — then you can begin to move forward,” she explains.
Repressing emotions can also negatively affect your mental well-being, not to mention your relationships, communication skills, stress levels, and more.
“We’re wired for connection, and to not express ourselves is going against our biology,” Viñas says.
Giving yourself permission to feel — really feel — is an incredibly powerful thing. And it can help you get better at regulating and accepting your emotions.
What happens when you don’t accept your emotions?
“When we don’t accept our emotions it could lead to long-term pain, making decisions that aren’t necessarily in our best interest, or externalizing negative feelings,” Viñas says.
When you don’t accept your emotions, it can make it harder to even accept yourself.
Viñas says that not accepting your emotions does have one “positive”: You stay in your comfort zone. “[But] there is no room for growth, love, or healing without accepting your emotions as they are,” she says.
When you start to accept your emotions, you may just start to feel more at peace and in control.
Getting in touch with your emotions can help with emotional regulation. Regulating your emotions involves being able to recognize, manage, and respond to emotions as they come.
“Learning how your emotions impact you and then being able to regulate them can increase self-esteem [and] confidence, and lead to a more fulfilling life,” according to Viñas.
She offers five tips for getting in touch with your emotions:
Write out your feelings
You can journal or just jot it down on your phone, but Viñas recommends taking a moment to write down the emotion — negative, positive, or somewhere in between — and why it affected you.
“This way, you can learn more about yourself and express yourself to others with ease,” she says.
Check-in with your mental health daily
Writing what you’re feeling can be part of a daily mental health check-in, which can help you understand yourself and what you’re feeling better.
You can start checking in with yourself by simply making a habit of asking yourself: How am I doing today?
And if you’re not doing well? Viñas says to “be curious about that emotion instead of judging it.”
Beating yourself up about feeling sad or angry may only set the stage for you to feel bad for the rest of the day.
Lean in and accept your emotions
“If you’re feeling sad, allow yourself to cry instead of holding back tears,” Viñas says. “If you’re feeling happy, smile and let others know. The sooner you acknowledge the feeling, the sooner you can move through it.”
Shift negative thoughts and emotions
“The way we think leads to how we will feel, and ultimately, how we will act,” Viñas says.
You can’t wave a magic wand and change your negative thoughts to positive ones, but you can take steps to recognize, acknowledge, and move on from negative narratives.
One of those steps is changing what information you’re surrounding yourself with.
“If we fill our mind up with poor thoughts, it can impact how we feel and then how we will treat ourselves and others,” she says. She recommends checking out podcasts, books, and YouTube videos that have positive messages or you can relate to in some way.
“This can help increase our ability to feel better about ourselves,” she adds.
Reach out when needed
“Although everyone responds differently to difficult events, it ultimately becomes unsustainable to withhold everything you are feeling,” Viñas says. “When we begin talking about our feelings to others, we develop a sense of emotional intimacy.”
She adds that emotional intimacy can also decrease loneliness and lower negative feelings in general because you’re able to vent them.
If you’re in a relationship, she says that expressing your feelings can give you the opportunity for closeness. “However, to withhold your feelings could mean creating distance, assumptions, and lead to negative feelings,” she says.
Talking with a mental health professional can really help you get in touch with your emotions — especially if you’re finding this difficult on your own or with friends or family members.
“This can be extremely insightful for you to investigate where your feelings are coming from in a personalized way with a professional who cares,” Viñas says.
If you need help finding a therapist, Psych Central has a guide for that.
A 2018 study found that when people believe their emotions are out of their control, this belief could actually act as a contributing factor to depression.
Viñas adds that when we don’t care for our mental health, it can lead to a lot of physical health concerns, too.
If you feel like you have no control over your emotions, it’s OK to reach out for support. A mental health professional can offer you a safe space to talk about your emotions and why they’re making you feel so out of control.
Emotions are a part of being human and one way our body can communicate with us.
“Our bodies have a fascinating way of letting us know its boundaries if we’re brave enough to listen,” Viñas says.