Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

The Purpose of Feelings

Feelings are an internal signal to behave in a certain way.

Posted Dec 19, 2012

Feelings are often spoken of as if they are a thing. “Get rid of those negative feelings,” some people say, as if one could turn away from unpleasant feelings by an effort of will alone. Emotional responses, however, are obligatory. They are an inevitable reaction to circumstances, although some people respond more readily than others. People get angry, for example, whether they want to or not. Given a particular frustration some people might get angrier than others, depending on their temperament; but they will all still get angry. Imagine that someone comes up to you and suddenly kicks you in the knee. You will get angry. You may pretend to other people, or even to yourself, that you are not angry. But you will be.

I don’t have to imagine such a circumstance. When I was an intern, I was walking to the subway from the hospital where I had been on duty all weekend. I was not thinking anything or paying attention to anything. Suddenly an old lady came up to me and started kicking me in the leg.

“Get over to the right,” she said, “this is America, you know.”

I found myself drawing my foot back to kick this old lady and stopped myself barely in time. I could have said to myself, “Well, she is an old lady and she is drunk,” which she was. I could have told myself not to be angry at this poor, old lady. But that was not what I felt. I felt like kicking her back. I could refrain from acting as if I were angry, but the feeling itself was unavoidable.

Catharsis is the supposed relief of feelings by expressing them in some way. We harbor a certain amount of feelings, that idea suggests, and if they are bad feelings, we can empty them out and feel better. A whole theory of psychotherapy is based on this idea. Primal Scream Therapy prescribed a period of cleansing, dressing up properly, and then lying on the floor and screaming. This was supposed to be therapeutic. The reason why such a silly idea did not die out immediately is that every treatment works for a while—if it is recommended by someone who is seen as an authority. Penn and Teller, the magicians and truth-tellers, did a funny demonstration of this when they offered free “slime therapy” to people in a shopping center. The “patients” sat still while snails crawled over their faces. The subjects saw this procedure as helpful and said they would be willing to pay for further treatments.

It is true that people who are feeling distress are likely to feel better after talking to a friend or a therapist, but that is because there is something in the relationship that is comforting. It is not that a certain quantity of bad feelings have drained away.

The fact is, feelings are internal signals. They have no more independent existence than the red in a red traffic light. They are instructions to behave in certain ways. The purpose of feelings, seen in that light, is readily apparent—it is to further the interests of the individual. Feelings are unpleasant when the circumstances that produce them are unpleasant, or when the behavior called into existence by those feelings is thwarted. Consider these familiar emotional states:

  • Feelings of fear are engendered by dangerous situations. The individual who feels fear is impelled into the “fight or flight” reaction. Someone encountering a threat gets ready to fight or to run away. This reaction serves an obvious purpose, as do all other feelings. In this case—and in the others—the action called for has a survival function. It is unpleasant to be afraid, but it is critically important. All other feelings serve a similar purpose, although in other cases the action called for may be less obvious. So, fear is perfectly appropriate.  It is pathological only when people are frightened by things that should not be frightening. The anxiety disorders have that character. Someone who has a snake phobia, or a height phobia, or a bridge phobia is frightened unnecessarily. The person with a snake phobia imagines that the snake will dart at him/her and bite. The person with a height phobia imagines he/she will suddenly get dizzy and fall (or, out of a perverse impulse, jump).  These fears are unwarranted. The person with a bridge phobia is likely to be suffering from a form of agoraphobia. Claustrophobia is another version of agoraphobia. People suffering from this disorder are afraid they will have a panic attack in a situation from which they cannot easily escape, and will then lose control of themselves and do something embarrassing or dangerous—which does not happen.

If someone were to walk down an alleyway and be confronted suddenly by three menacing men carrying weapons, the fight or flight reaction is desirable. That response includes a faster heartbeat, deep breathing, tense muscles, and so on. These physical changes are part of a physiological preparation for action. They are the same physical reactions someone has when experiencing a panic attack. But someone having a panic attack is afraid of precisely those physical reactions. The affected individual is not focusing on men with weapons, in which case the physical reaction would go unnoticed. They are focusing on the symptoms of fear itself. Naturally, since in that case the fight or flight reaction serves no purpose, the affected individual wants to be rid of it. But this feeling cannot be cancelled out by screaming, or saying encouraging things to oneself. Confronting the fear is what makes it go away. Over time. The phobic person has to learn that the fears he/she has are not realistic. Fear, like all feelings, is a call to action. Anxiety is a continuing state of fear, often without a readily discernible cause. The dangers, then, are more subtle.

  • Feelings of hunger and thirst similarly have an obvious survival function. Feelings of sexual arousal are important for the survival of the species. It is powerful and often leads people to behave in ways that are not in their long-term interest. Nature has provided for us to act first in such an important matter and think about it only later on. All three of these cravings become unpleasant when it is impossible for one reason or another to satisfy them. Other physical feelings are similarly unpleasant for a different reason—because the things that provoke them are uncomfortable. An itchy feeling calls forth the desire to scratch. Someone who is sleepy wants to go to sleep, and should then go to sleep if health is to be maintained. Innumerable other feelings, such as feeling cold or hot, serve obvious functions, as do more subtle feelings such as disgust and longing. Disgust is rooted in the primitive need to avoid contaminated substances, such as excrement. Longing impels people to be in the company of others. It is the need to be part of a group that drives many other feelings: loneliness and religious feelings, for example. Guilt and embarrassment, and shame, are important in facilitating group cohesion. Being part of a group—religious or civil—is critical for the survival of the individual. For similar reasons, happy feelings are important. They help cement participation in groups since they usually occur in a group context. These feelings include joy and excitement.
  • Anger. People get angry in order to influence other people—and, in fact, people do respond to someone who is angry. Human beings are social animals. We cannot survive alone. Getting along well means getting angry from time to time so that other people know how we feel about the inevitable frustrations of living together and getting in each other’s way. Ideally, someone should sound a little angry if that person is, in fact, a little angry, and very angry if that person is very angry. Otherwise, someone who yells all the time will be ignored, just as someone who never expresses anger at all will be ignored. Angry feelings expressed directly usually last only a little while. It is supposed to communicate a message only, not to dominate the other person. If the expression of anger is ignored—or, if it cannot be expressed effectively, as when one is angry at a boss—angry feelings persist and are felt subjectively to be unpleasant.

One cannot stop being angry out of a conscious decision that it does no good to be angry. Saying that and believing that is simply pretending in an attempt to comfort oneself. If someone is angry at another person for a long enough period of time, it is reasonable to expect that person will come to hate the other person. It is an angry feeling thwarted. For that reason, most of the people capable of engendering a feeling of hate are family members or a boss, people who cannot be influenced and from whom there may be no escape. We are not likely to hate a neighbor who lives a block away, unless that neighbor has sway over us for some particular reason.

  • Innumerable feelings—unpleasant like anger, and pleasant too—serve a social purpose, and     consequently provide a survival benefit: the wish and urge to laugh, the smile that comes over everyone’s face seeing a newborn baby, the desire to give somebody a hug. These positive feelings reinforce the social contract. Even a vaguely unpleasant feeling like boredom serves to drive people to venture into the company of others. Serious loss, which may be of a job or of physical health, but is usually of a relationship—someone loses a family member to separation or death, someone else is jilted—causes sadness, sometimes profound sadness. Such a state is called depression, or grief. It is distinct from the major depressions that run in families, that are episodic, and that are, really a kind of illness. Grief is a kind of healing process that takes a varying amount of time, depending on how active the affected individual is in keeping busy and/or trying to fill the gap caused by the loss. Some people speak of the purposes of grief; but I think that is not quite right. Emotional changes take place over a period of months during a grief reaction, but they are not the purpose of grief. Grief is one more feeling that comes when a normal feeling or desire is thwarted. It is the wish to be in the company of those who love us. That feeling has an obvious survival benefit. Homesickness is a kind of modified grief. It may be unavoidable, but it isa consequence of the healthy wish to be surrounded by family and friends.

Sadness, in general, drives people to seek out others.

So, people are entitled to feel whatever way they feel, even if someone else in similar circumstances would feel differently. Patients should not be asked to control their feelings. Thoughts are more amenable to change. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an attempt to control thinking by allowing patients to have more salutary experiences. In the end, it is only behavior that can be controlled. If someone behaves properly in most situations, their experience of the world encourages them after a while to become more optimistic and less troubled by unpleasant feelings.(c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at

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