Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools?!

I hear this a lot in my work as a therapist, especially when the topic of emotions and how they work comes up.

One particular client I’ve been working with struggles a lot with chronic worry and anxiety. She told me recently: “I feel like I’m just a huge mess of stress and anxiety… I’m always worried about something.”

As we unpacked what was going on in her life, and gathered more information, I noticed something crucial: In her mind, anxiety and worry were the exact same thing—terrible feelings that just descended on her, seemingly out of the blue.

After I took some time to explain that worry was actually an action (something we do mentally) while anxiety was an emotion (something we feel), she started to look at things differently.

She began to observe how her habit of worrying was an attempt to control and reduce her anxiety. And that obviously this strategy was not working out very well for her since worrying in response to anxiety only fans the flames and makes it worse.

As she got better at making this distinction between worry and anxiety, she was able to start undoing her habit of worrying every time she got anxious. This lead to a quick and strong reduction in her overall anxiety levels throughout the day.

Understanding the fairly simple concept that worry was an action that she did and anxiety was a feeling that happened made all the difference for her.

And it was the simplicity of the concept that prompted her initial exclamation:

“Why don’t they teach this stuff in schools?!”

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We’re all in the dark, emotionally

My client was understandably frustrated that she was only learning this pretty basic concept as a 45-year-old when she could have easily learned it as a 10-year-old.

And while I think it’s a great question, I honestly had (and still have) no idea what the answer is. Why aren’t the basics of mental and emotional health being taught at a young age?

But it did get me thinking…

Suppose a school came to me and said, We want you to teach a class on Mental Health to our 5th graders, and you can teach whatever you want.

What would I teach?

What are the basic concepts and ideas in mental health that everyone could benefit from learning at an early age?

Almost immediately, one word popped into my mind: Emotions

As a society, we suck at emotions.

It’s painfully ironic that while emotions are increasingly understood to have an enormous impact on every aspect of our lives, big and small, most of us are still almost completely in the dark about even the basics of what they are and how they work.

What would you say if a 3rd grader asked you what an emotion was?

Yeah, kinda hard, right?

So I got to thinking… The first section or unit of this hypothetical class I would teach would be all about emotions.

What follows are the 7 lessons I would want all my students to understand about emotion, written in language that’s as age-appropriate as I could manage.

While there probably aren’t any 3rd graders reading this article, I think we all could benefit from taking in even some basic concepts, in basic language, about our emotions and how they work.

1. Emotions can’t hurt you.

Always remember that no matter how strong an emotion is, it can’t hurt you. Like going to the dentist, emotions are sometimes uncomfortable or even painful, but they’re not dangerous. Actually, emotions are one of the ways our mind tries to help us stay safe. When we feel afraid, it’s because our brain thinks there’s something dangerous nearby. And when we feel angry, it’s because our brain thinks there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed. They’re not always right, but our emotions are usually just trying to help.

2. Emotions are different than thoughts.

Thoughts are the words we say to ourselves in our own mind. “I’m a really good soccer player” is a thought. So is, “What if my teacher gets mad at me for not doing all my homework?” Emotions happen in our minds just like thoughts do, but they’re a little different. Emotions are feelings. Pride is an emotion—the feeling you get after scoring a goal in your soccer game. So is fear—the feeling you get when you imagine your teacher giving you a bad grade for not doing your homework. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between thoughts and emotions, but it’s a good idea to practice when we can.

3. Emotions come from our thoughts.

Sometimes it feels like emotions just come out of nowhere and land in our minds. But really, emotions come from our thoughts. When I feel sad after my ice-cream drops on the ground, it’s not the ice-cream on the ground that makes me sad. It’s my thoughts about the ice-cream that make me feel sad: “Oh no, I dropped my ice-cream so now I won’t get to have anymore.” Even though we can’t always change what happens to us, we can change how we think about things. And sometimes that can change how we feel.

4. Emotions are different than actions.

Have you ever gotten really mad at your brother or sister or friend for something and then yelled at them? Yeah, me too. Getting mad is an emotion. But yelling is an action. When we feel a strong emotion like mad or afraid, we usually want to do something right away. But it’s good to know that we don’t have to. It’s okay to just feel an emotion without doing anything.

5. Emotions are not good or bad.

Sometimes we don’t always do the right thing, like taking a snack from the snack drawer when we know we’re not supposed to. Taking the snack is wrong because we knew it was wrong and could have stopped, but we did it anyway. Actions like this can be good or bad because we can control our actions. But our emotions aren’t good or bad because they’re not things we do or have control over. Feeling guilty after we took the snack might feel bad but that doesn’t mean that feeling the guilty is a bad thing.

6. Emotions can’t be turned on and off.

When our emotions are strong and don’t feel very good, sometimes we wish we could just press a button and turn them off. But that’s not really how they work. There’s no on/off switch for sadness or volume buttons for fear. We can’t pull a lever and make ourselves feel happy. Emotions come and go, and that’s okay. Usually, the best thing to do is say hello to them, then get back to doing whatever we were doing before.

7. Emotions don’t last very long.

Emotions aren’t meant to last very long on their own. Usually just a few seconds or minutes. But they can last longer if we keep thinking about them. Imagine you made a mistake in front of the class and one of your classmates said something mean to you. You would probably feel embarrassed for a little while. But what you think about afterward might change how you will feel: If you spend all day remembering your mistake and wishing you had known the answer, you might keep feeling embarrassed. But if you tell yourself “It was just a mistake—everyone makes mistakes sometimes” and then go play and think about other things, you probably won’t feel embarrassed much longer.

Wrapping Up

For all sorts of reasons, most of us did not receive much of an explicit emotional education. Even basic concepts like the difference between an emotion (anger) and the behavioral expression of that emotion (yelling) are foreign or at least a little fuzzy to many of us. And while we can’t go back to 3rd grade and re-learn these emotional fundamentals at an early age, we can begin to think a little more carefully about them now.

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