The dominating message we receive from society is to avoid or repress our emotions. However, due to the way our nervous system is built, an unregistered or unprocessed emotion is always stored in our brain or body. Repressed emotions may cause emotional outbursts at inconvenient times causing us to hurt people or put us in unflattering situations, writes Tahsin Tasnia Simi
The word "emotion" is usually assigned a negative connotation in regular conversations in Bangladesh, especially when used as an adjective. "She's very emotional", indicates that a person is perceived to be weak, irrational, and immature. "Don't act emotionally", "Don't think of the situation emotionally," -- these messages are sent to us over and over again from our childhood. This tells us about a deep dysfunction in our society where emotions are written off as some kind of burden or inconvenience that slows us down or negatively affects our judgement and behaviour. As such, culturally, we are mostly taught to repress our emotions which leads to many social issues, including mental illness. But first, what exactly are emotions?
Emotions -- what exactly they are: Emotions are biochemical messages through which our body, or more specifically, our nervous system, interacts with the environment around us. This communication occurs through biochemical algorithms that have been perfected through years and years of the evolutionary selection process.
Evolutionary background: Let us think of it this way. In prehistoric times, when our ancestors were living in the savannah, their daily lives were much more dangerous than ours. Sourcing resources to sustain their lives was also a much more difficult process.
Let us imagine a scenario: A homo sapien living in a savannah comes across a tree with fruits in it, however, there is a lion roaming in front of the tree. He or she is hungry, and food is very scarce to come by, so they may starve for the rest of the day or even for a few days. As such, he or she can't easily make the decision to approach the tree. However, there is a good possibility of losing life as a result of the lion's attack. So, he or she has to carefully calculate the probability of both of these outcomes, factor in the stakes, and reach a decision. So, how is this decision reached? This is where our nervous system steps in. It conducts a complicated calculation, and the results are communicated through emotions. If the probability of reaching the fruits without harm is too high, he/she will suddenly feel brave and attempt to collect the food. On the other hand, if the probability of getting killed by the lion is too high then he or she will feel scared. This is a simplified scenario, and the actual process is much more complex. However, through this example, we can establish that emotions are far from irrational. They are important messages that we must learn how to decipher, navigate, translate, process, and translate into behaviour.
Emotional regulation 101: The dominant message we receive from society is to avoid or repress our emotions. However, due to the way our nervous system is built, an unregistered or unprocessed emotion is always stored in our brain or body. Repressed emotions may cause emotional outbursts at inconvenient times leading us to hurt people or put us in unflattering situations. In extreme cases, repressed emotions can also cause mental illness, most commonly depression, anxiety, etc. Hence, the moral of the story is that there is no escaping our emotions. So, the wiser decision is to process them in a healthy way and translate them into healthy and acceptable behaviour.
All emotions are valid, but the same is not true for every resulting behaviour. For example, a person or a situation can make us feel frustrated or angry. This emotion is valid. This is a normal neurochemical outcome of that experience. However, if we choose to resort to malignant or violent behaviour, this behaviour will not be valid and can't be excused stating the circumstances. A healthy and valid way of processing that anger would be by writing about it, talking to a friend, etc. Different processes work for different people. Some sort of physical activity, for example, boxing, can be a good way of processing emotions that are overwhelming or charged, for example, anger, stress, frustration, etc.
Physical health is connected: The impact of our physical state on our mental health is actually enormous. If we are not taking basic care of our body -- for example, getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, getting enough physical activity, and exposing ourselves to sunlight -- our mental state will automatically be compromised.
Interestingly, in recent studies, it has been found that gut health is crucially important to our mental health, as our guts are full of nerves called the enteric nervous system. Moreover, recent preliminary research has established a connection between gut bacteria and mental illness. Hence, being conscious of what we eat is of utmost importance.
Harmful teachings like "Boys don't cry": Unfortunately, whenever a young man expresses vulnerability, he is given the message that this is not acceptable. Phrases such as, "Boys don't cry", "Man up", and "Don't act like a girl" may appear harmless; however, they reinforce a harmful message and teach boys to repress their emotions. Some of these phrases are offensive to girls. As men also possess a nervous system and go through life, they are also bound to experience normal human emotions, such as sadness, fear, etc. By only allowing men to express certain feelings that are considered "manly", such as anger and frustration, society creates emotionally stunted men. This is a damaging outcome for all relevant stakeholders. Therefore, we must decide to create a space where men are taught to validate and express their feelings in a healthy manner for a well-functioning society.
Parenting style and our social responsibility: Childhood is when we form our relationship with our emotions. If a child is nourished in a healthy environment and has secure emotional attachments with his or her parents, he or she grows up to be a well-adjusted adult. A child models themselves after their parents. Therefore, it is important for parents to know how to emotionally regulate themselves. Additionally, it is also important for parents to be emotionally available for their children. This means lending emotional support in times of distress. A child's relationship with their parents is the first relationship they have ever experienced. Going forward, they model their future relationships based on this primal experience. Consequently, it is important for parents to nurture a healthy emotional connection with their children.
In developed countries, there are easily available resources to help new parents navigate parenthood and their children's emotional development. In addition, children are taught the basics of emotional regulation. Although, in Bangladesh, we see some small-scale initiatives being taken in this regard, it is especially commendable that the government has introduced a relevant subject in the government curriculum. However, we must be conscious that this is only the start, and there is a long way we still have to go.