Do Emotions Help or Hurt You?

On Friday, I had lunch with Mark, an old friend who has AIDS. In the 1990’s, for nearly a year, he lived face-to-face with death. His white blood cell (T4) count was near zero. He couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time.


In 1995, Mark’s friends and family even had a farewell party at his apartment. He sat in a chair and wished us all good-bye and good luck. It was sad, but also a happy appreciation of the good things Mark had brought into our lives.

Then scientists developed a new class of AIDS drugs called protease inhibitors, and Mark was one of the first to get them. He was saved. Although he had all kinds of physical symptoms from the disease and from the drugs, he struggled through. He is now in many ways better than he has been in 20 years.

(You know how hard I am on the drug industry. Well, AIDS is one case in which the researchers really got it right. Maybe I should give them a pass for a while. Or maybe not.)

At Friday’s lunch, I asked Mark how the near-death experience had changed him. He talked about not being afraid of death any more, appreciating each day as it comes, living on “a more even keel.”

Then he said something interesting. “I learned not to pay attention to my emotions. I learned that emotions aren’t real. They’re just waves in your mind. They can get in the way of doing what you need to do. So if feelings can help me get from one place to another, I use them. If they’re in the way, I just let them go.”

The Nature of Emotions
I was surprised to hear that. I tend to trust emotions more than thoughts. Emotions are more primal. They’re felt in the older parts of the brain. Where thoughts can be confused or just plain wrong, I thought emotions were more reliable. But Mark said no.

“Like when somebody says something that hurts, or hits me in the head or something, I’ll get angry,” he said. “I can decide what I want to do about it. But if I keep going back to that feeling and stay angry, I’ll just be stuck.”

I thought: This is so relevant to living with a chronic condition. Feelings of anger, grief, fear, and frustration can come up every day. What’s the best way to deal with them?

In my book The Art of Getting Well, I say we should put emotions to positive use. Anger motivates change. Fear tells us what we need to face up to. Grief is a natural reaction that needs to be expressed, and so on.

We could possibly block the painful emotions, but then we would probably block the good feelings as well. If you love someone, I thought, you are going to fear when they are in danger and grieve their loss when they’re gone. Without the painful feelings, you wouldn’t have the love.

What’s Your Attitude?
But I’m starting to think Mark is right. In meditation, you are taught that thoughts will come to you. You are supposed to just notice them and let them go, not get involved with them or resist them. Perhaps emotions are the same way. We should just notice them, perhaps try to understand what they are telling us, and then let them go.

This sounds easier said than done. Thoughts and emotions are habits, kind of like smoking. We keep going back to the same thoughts, especially negative ones, over and over. Emotions are the same way. I tend to get depressed easily these days by the world situation. I’ll come out of it by laughing or crying or exercising or doing something pleasurable. Then a few days later I find myself back there again. It’s hard to let go of.

What’s your take on the value of emotions? Do they play a big part in your life, or do you stay away from them as much as possible? How do you deal with them when they come up? Are you able to put them to positive use?

Our emotions make up a major of part of who we are. Please share your feelings about feelings by commenting here.

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  • latoya

    I do agree, emotions play a big role in our self development. Diabetes and depression are often intertiwned, it is important that we accept it in order to learn how to control it.

  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Dear David.

    Yes my emotional brain mostly sabotages my rational one. But it is part of being a normal human being. Saddam and Stalin could probably control their emotions very well or did not have too many. They were not necessarily good.

    The world situation is very depressing according to my rational brain. My emotional one believes that somehow we will survive. so you the key word is “mostly” sabotages but not always.

  • Anna

    About a year ago, my home caught fire. Lots of smoke damage and minimal actual damage. My home was not liveable for a few months. The frustration with the insurance company, contractors, and the cleaning company, I found myself crying just about every day. When I wrote down in a daily logg, what I had eaten, which was within my diet, yet I still h ad high readings. Then it donned onto me, my crying. I needed to just let this go and concentrate on that fact that I would soon be back at home. When I cried, it took three days for my sugars to come down.

  • James D.Taylor

    Interesting subject to be sure. The Mind/Body conundrum continues to tease and tantalize with it’s possibilities to improve well being especially in folks living with long term chronic conditions (diabetes,lupus and others)
    As for me, after living as an insulin dependent diabetic for over 44 years I’ve been forced to change approaches with age and it’s associated maladies.
    In my youth, I honestly thought I could channel my anger over “being different” into more intense workouts and exercize routines. It served me well through my undergraduate days in college and led to a modicum of success in a variety of athletic endeavors, most of which involved aggressive physical contact and allowed an expression of rage and anger in an acceptable environment.
    At some point the drive to compete and overcome was replaced by a more contemplative approach led in part by the increasing number of nagging pains and injuries emanating from various parts of my anatomy. The sense I had of “If the fire burns hot enough it can overcome any obstacle” was slowly leaving me along with some of the emotions that had fueled that fire. Maybe it was burnout, maybe it was acceptance maybe it had to do with becoming “completely adult” in my approach to life.
    My exercize today is mostly walking and hiking to favorite trout streams. Not sure if fly fishing is considered a form of meditation but it serves it’s purpose that way for me and the “durm and strang” of the modern world and living with a chronic condition in that world are washed away by the cool water swirling around my legs.
    Do I still get angry? Hell yes! But the need to put that anger into immediate action is replaced with a more analytical review of the issue and keeps me from fighting too many quixotic battles.
    As to the drug companies and there rapid response to a disease that wasn’t even identified accurately until the late 70’s as someone who grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula I can tell you a good deal of the credit goes to the mostly homosexual AIDS activists who had grown increasingly frustrated with the level of response to this growing medical issue and took there frustration out publicly where they demanded and got a response to those demands in increased levels of funding, research, drug studies and awareness.
    As someone who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for twice as long as AIDS has even been identified I can only hope that at sometime my diabetic brethren and I will focus our collective level of frustration and yes,anger that will lead to as rapid a response and as stunning a breakthroughs as AIDS victims have seen in a relatively short period of time to the growing epidemic of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Dear Anna.

    That’s a great post I will try an add a how are you feeling variable to my log may explain blood sugars.

  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Dear James.

    Fly fishing is definetely meditation. You have to concentrate on the now of the situation and your brain has to stop thinking up mischief. It may be warm enogh today to not have the line freeze in the guides.

    That’s a good point why diabetics put up with no action on the part of the providers. Even worst when I first got full fledged D, I had an accurate meter that was always 5% below the lab results now I find that the 5 second meters are random number generators. This really destroys morale and harms the treatment of a very difficult disease. Where is the ADA and the FDA obviously the can do something since in the past the meters were better albeit they took 60 seconds for a reading, I can wait when my life depends on accuracy.

  • Beth

    Along with type 2 diabetes, I have allergies, arthritis, asthma, chronic recurrent depression, and PTSD. The control is not anywhere near perfect for any of these conditions. Nevertheless, I live a very good life, with lots of happiness, and a deep sense of contentment.

    Like your friend Mark, I had to learn to let the emotions float into awareness and then disappear. I have found that for me, it’s quite damaging to ignore the emotions. I think of emotions as if they were small children — if I ignore them, they cry loudly for attention, and if I keep ignoring them, they hit or even bite me. But if I recognize them, say their names, and meet their basic needs, they quiet down, and grow into more mature beings.

    Of course, just as with children, it’s important to know what the difference is between wants and needs. Maybe my anger wants revenge — but all it really needs is for me to recognize the fear underneath the anger, and for me to bring some of my knowledge and logic into awareness to allay that fear.

    As I re-read what I just wrote, I see that this couple of paragraphs is quite abstract and sounds simple. Really, it took me many years of working it out to find a balance that works for me. Doing all of this is a real art, not a science.

  • David Spero RN

    Great comments as usual… I really want to second the idea of recording emotions and stresses on a glucose log or self-management log or whatever records you keep. They really do seem to affect sugars, blood pressure, and other variables.