David James Olney
18 September 2023
“While a growing majority of Australians surveyed by the Red Cross said that they are increasingly concerned about the risk of experiencing natural disasters, like bushfires and floods, only 10% of the people surveyed said that they had taken action to prepare for a natural disaster.”
The above sentence is a summary of a segment from AM on the ABC today (18 September, 2023) that stopped me dead during my yoga practice. The segment, Aussies failing to prepare for emergencies, despite increased risk, went into a variety of reasons as to why people might not prepare for natural disasters, which they are worried about, but it did not address the core issue that underpins the broader pattern of behaviour exemplified by this phenomenon:
Why don’t people take action to resolve circumstances that motivate uncomfortable, negative emotions?
I have spent the last two weeks reflecting on three profoundly important books about negative emotions and psychological states. Between Wendy Suzuki’s book on anxiety, Moshe Ratson’s book on anger, and Jonathan Rottenberg’s book on depression, it has become abundantly clear to me that negative emotions are our brain’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right, and telling us that we should identify what isn’t right and take action to change some aspect of the situation that is under our control.
In Antonio Damasio’s terms, our feeling mind is letting our thinking mind know that we are very concerned about something, and that our thinking mind should do what it does best and come up with a plan for improving the situation. Once our thinking mind comes up with a decent plan of action, our feeling mind should use the motivation that negative emotions are meant to inspire to propel us into action.
If this system currently worked like it historically worked, then concern about circumstances would lead to negative emotions, which would lead to a plan of action, which would motivate action, which would result in improved circumstances and the amelioration of negative emotions.
According to Suzuki, Ratson, and Rottenberg, this is how humans used to function, when negative emotions motivated constructive action.
Sadly, we are now in an era in which negative emotions all to often lead to more negative emotions, heartfelt discussions of mental health, and not enough well planned action that improve circumstances and ameliorate negative emotions.
Somewhere along the way, too many of us lost our historic action orientation, which enabled us to experience negative emotions as motivation for life enhancing action.
Somewhere along the way, too many of us developed a passivity that stops negative emotion from motivating positive action.
Somewhere along the way, negative emotion started overwhelming more of us.
Somewhere along the way, we started thinking that we could reduce negative emotion without directly addressing concerning circumstances, or our need for an action orientation.
Somewhere along the way, we better re-learn how to fuel an action orientation with negative emotion.
Otherwise, we are going to be overwhelmed by every concern and unprepared to overcome our emotional inaction.
Damasio, Antonio (2021). Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious. Hachette Audio, Audiobook Edition.
Ratson, Moshe (2023). Anger Is Your Compass: Harness the Wisdom of Anger and Transform Your Life. Moshe Ratson, Audiobook Edition.
Rottenberg, Jonathan (2014). The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. Gildan Media, Audiobook Edition.
Suzuki, Wendy (2020). Anxiety Is Your Superpower: Using Anxiety to Think Better, Feel Better and Do Better. Hodder & Stoughton, Audiobook Edition.