Maladaptive Emotions Don’t Exist

· May 27, 2019
We create an emotion’s adaptive or maladaptive powers. Emotions have an energy level and a message, but we're the ones who decide what to do with them.

Emotions have an adaptive and evolutionary value, as science has been able to demonstrate it. Studies by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Psychology Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, show that basic emotions have an inherent adaptive function. These findings lead us to the conclusion that there are no maladaptive emotions. Rather, in many cases, emotions are topographically maladaptive, very intense, or manifest very frequently in various situations.

All emotions have a function that makes them useful, regardless of the pleasant quality they may generate. Indeed, even the most unpleasant emotions have important functions in social adaptation and personal adjustment.

Your emotions are the product of an evolution that was sensitive to the characteristics of the external world. Still, not everything is out of your control in the genetic equation that we call emotions. In particular, you can interpret and adapt emotions to a situation. Specifically, you have the ability to control their intensity and message.

“Emotion has its place, but it mustn’t interfere with taking the appropriate action.”

-Susan Oakey-Baker-

A sad woman sitting down with her arms on her head.

What Are Maladaptive Emotions?

Jorge Bucay says that many emotions manifest outside your ability to chooseTherefore, you’re not responsible for them. However, you are responsible for how you act. You experience (or will experience) all of the possible emotions within the emotional spectrum that you inherit from your ancestors. In particular, your brain acquires these emotions phylogenetically.

In this regard, it’s important to note that everyone at some point in their life will feel ’embarrassing’ emotions. For example, jealousy, anger, rage, and sadness. The sooner you stop thinking that you have to hide or minimize these emotions, the more you’ll be able to benefit from them.

Emotions Aren’t either Good or Bad

Sometimes, being jealous can be a ‘good’ thing and feeling joy can be a ‘bad’ thing. Of course, this depends on the situation in which you experience these emotions. Or, more conclusively, it’s important to understand that feeling these emotions isn’t either good or bad. Rather, it’s evolutionary and what you do with these emotions is what’s reprehensible or praiseworthy.

We already know that maladaptive emotions don’t exist. Instead, there are maladaptive behaviors. As an example, we’ll take a look at anger. No one is or ever will be exempt from feeling anger. Namely, because it’s an emotion that has helped humans survive and evolve as a species. In particular, anger helps us in situations where it’s necessary to increase neuronal activity, as well as muscle and heart rates.

Therefore, anger as an emotion is necessary. However, what you do with this emotion is what may be maladaptive. You can feel angry for many different reasons. But how you act will be completely up to you. For this reason, it’s important to know why you experience these emotions. Then, you’ll be able to handle all the possible responses in your repertoire. You’re not guilty of feeling angry. Rather, you’re guilty of what you do with that energy and its message.

Emotional education may help you avoid the unnecessary suffering you may cause yourself.

The Adaptive Value of Emotions

As we’ve already seen, emotions aren’t either good or bad. Instead, the context and the person generally give it a specific meaning. In the previous sections, we talked about their adaptive value. But just as they can be of great help, they can also cause conflicts and disturbances when we mismanage them.

Unpleasant emotions have an adaptive value. For example, they can make you more cautious or careful. Likewise, they can also be the impulse you need to defend your rights. However, at the same time, they’re also the source of many bad emotional adaptations. That’s why we erroneously talk about maladaptive emotions.

For example, anxiety is an emotional state that results from adaptive incentives during evolution. Specifically, anxiety ensured the survival of individuals by providing them with skills to better cope with threatening and potentially harmful situations.

This emotional state can lead to a simple state of alert or potentially-threatening stimulants, such as the vigorous responses that accompany fear and panic.

A man thinking and holding his hands.

Sometimes, people feel anxiety when they don’t need to. If it doesn’t go away, it can lead to other pathologies such as generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic attacks, and many other disorders you can find in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  • Bisquerra, R. (2006). Educación emocional y bienestar. Madrid : Wolters Kluwer.
  • Panksepp, J. A. (1992). A critical role for “Affective Neuroscience” in resolving what is basic about emotions. Psychological Review, 99(3), 554-560.