Moods and emotions are both types of feeling; the two terms are often used interchangeably, but can actually have subtle differences. Emotions have a clear focus (“I’m happy because of my promotion”; “I’m sad because my dog is ill”) and are time-limited, but moods don’t have to have an obvious ending or a definitive cause (“I just feel sad, and I don’t know why”).
It’s useful to differentiate between mood and emotion; a mood can often work undetected in the background, unwittingly influencing your behaviour.
We can often train ourselves to recognise our moods more quickly, through tools like mindfullness, cognitive therapy, or even meditation – all when delivered by people who know what they’re talking about. By guiding ourselves to become more in tune with our moods, we allow ourselves the time to understand possible motives – or, if that’s not always possible, then consider what impact our behaviours are having on ourselves and others.
When looking at mood, it’s also important to think about an importance difference between a “state” and a “trait”. A trait is something that is fairly consistent in our self; a state is something temporary.
Anxiety is something we can use here as an example. The anxiety you would feel going for a tooth extraction, a minor operation, or a consultation about the ongoing headaches you’ve been having – you’re in an anxious state for the duration of that wait and that appointment. When it’s over, your anxiety disappears. But some people have anxiety as a trait – it’s a continual part of that person’s being.
Being in a state of anxiety is manageable, because you know it will go away – and you can perhaps manage it whilst you have it through calming techniques. Living with anxiety as one of your traits means that it will always be there, to a lesser or greater degree; it won’t just “go away” like it would do if you had a temporary state of anxiety – but that doesn’t mean, sometimes, that it can’t be malleable. Everyone’s anxiety is different, of course, so what works for one person with that trait might not work as well with another.
Statistics indicate that 16.2% of people have some kind of emotional disorder in England and Wales; that’s 1 in 6 of the population. One in six! Why don’t we talk about this more? When these emotional disorders are implicated in 20% of sick days from work, 20% of GP appointments, and 2,500 deaths every year, it’s a scandal that this is not more front and centre.
We are the result of millions of years of evolutionary development. The human species is in a constant state of flux, but only visible over hundreds of millennia. Each part of us exists because it was once useful to our ancestors, and our future selves will carry the remnants of them too – as well as changes that come about as our environment changes. That will inevitably include our consciousnesses and emotional development; they are as much a part of our evolutionary development as our physical bodies, although we don’t often think of it in that way. We might be finding out more about our emotional and mental states, but that doesn’t mean the states themselves are new; we just have the capacity to express what they are. But if people ever say, “Oh, we didn’t have this sort of thing in my day”; they’re wrong. These emotions, these states, these traits … they have evolved into our very being.
These emotions and moods are also universal; they exist across the range of human races and cultures, even if the display of such emotions varies from culture to culture. The Japanese would be scandalised by dramatic outpourings of grief when a loved one dies, but people in India would be appalled if you didn’t show such emotions. Just because our cultural leanings are different, however, doesn’t mean that we don’t all experience the same emotions. We might express ourselves in different ways – influenced by our cultures – but we all feel the same range.
Culture can, however, influence when we feel a particular emotion. It’s logical enough when you consider the different norms around the world; Western ideals of feminine size (should all women be skinny?) make women feel anxious and depressed when they don’t fit into an idealised category. In some Asian cultures, where male babies are highly prized, women can become distressed and anguished when they give birth to girls.
Focusing again on evolution, let us develop the idea that both negative and positive emotions have value in our lives – else why would we have evolved them? Positive emotions promote bonding between individuals and groups, creating relationships that benefit your survival. Negative emotions such as fear and anxiety would help our ancestors flee from a bear – but how would sadness or worry benefit us? Worry might well compel us into action, making a decision that will reduce our anxiety.
Evolutionary scientists suggest that sadness might make us look again at failed goals and give up unhelpful behaviour. A study by an Australian university observed that people in a sad mood paid more attention to detail, were less gullible, and more likely to develop strong arguments. The corollory can also be true; overconfidence from misplaced optimism, for example, can lead to risk-taking and taking rash decisions.
We have seen the world around us change over the course of 30,000 to 50,000 years; we once lived as hunter-gathers, and now we live in cities with technology all around us. Fifty millennia isn’t very long in evolutionary terms; the world we evolved in is far removed from our current life, and that can be very stressful for emotions that have been relatively static in the intervening years. A wonderful phrase written in 1988 is that we are “stone-agers in the fast lane.”
Mental health is so often consigned to the back-burner. Despite the very real evidence that we need to understand its spectrum and intensity, it’s too often ignored or buried – we are afraid of bring considered “mad”, or society doesn’t know how to manage people who don’t conform to an idealised way of behaving.
If we have a physical condition – or even a physical sympton of a mental disorder – we will automatically consult a professional; a doctor, a pharmacist, or 111. We might also seek advice from a friend or website, but there’s not much hesitation in seeking out medical help. If something is wrong with our minds, we will so often seek out help for ourselves – through people we know, websites, and so on – and only as a last resort will we go to a professional.
Mental health is a powerful part of our identity as individuals, as a set of cultures, and as a species. We have “evolved” a sense that it is taboo to discuss this in any great degree, and that must stop. Only by creating an environment where we can deal with our traits openly and without shame can we start moving – evolving – beyond them.