If you’re a regular reader of the Wise Mind Living blog, you know that I believe most people who are stressed out have the wrong idea about what stress is. Which is why they aren’t very good at managing their stress.

What you need to do is learn how to manage your distressing emotions—because that’s what stress really is.

So where do these distressing emotions come from?

And if you don’t like these feelings, and they’re the reasons for stress, why do you have them, anyway?

The basic answer is that we have emotions because there’s a benefit to them (even the not so fun ones) on an evolutionary scale.

Humans have evolved to have a range of emotions. The process of evolution only keeps stuff around if there’s a very good reason for it: something about the emotion increases your likelihood of survival and reproduction.

Distressing emotions are, in fact, crucial to our very survival as a species because they help us.

Our ancient ancestors’ emotional responses were part of what defined who was “fittest” and, therefore, who survived. Emotions helped those ancestors to stay alive – feeling fear helped them escape danger – so they’d still be around to procreate. This is the fight or flight response to stress.

The following examples show what these emotions meant to our most ancient ancestors. And they point to the best ways to manage those emotions (and the stress that can come from them) now.

Fear ignites the urge to run or hide from whatever threatens your safety. Or it might urge you to stand and fight when that’s needed.  And it’s not just because of your feelings. The physiological changes that come along with the emotion are designed to help with either fight or flight.

Shame serves as a warning that you are at risk of being thrown out of the tribe. And, if it comes to that, your chances of survival are going to go way down. In the modern version, shame may help protect your important relationships by countering any tendency toward lying or cheating.

Anger provides a motivating force to do what must be done. In evolutionary terms, getting angry about someone stealing your food would press you into taking action to get it back or replenish your supplies. Anger lets you know something is awry and pushes you to take your chance to fix it.

And so it goes for all the major emotions (read about the 8 emotion families here), including the good ones too.

Evolutionary advantages aren’t the only value emotions provide us.

Bad feelings exist for good reasons. Emotions that distress you serve important purposes in your life today. They help you adapt to or overcome life’s challenges, or protect and defend yourself. They help you identify and respond to threat or loss – or opportunity.

Emotions can motivate you to act, and prioritize and organize what you need to do. They help you solve problems and help you connect to and communicate with others – and with yourself.

Understanding what your emotions do for you can help you manage those emotions – and any attendant stress.

Without that insight, your idea of how to manage a troublesome emotion might well be to get rid of it all together. Or try to, anyway. That’s not only impossible (your emotions are hardwired and here to stay) but is also guaranteed to make things worse.

Avoidance or denial of problematic emotions will compound their negative effects. The effort involved in suppressing emotions is so stressful in and of itself that it’s often worse than bearing the full weight of the emotion.

When you cover up, you sacrifice the benefits you would glean by contending with those emotions. Difficult emotions are useful – but only if you allow yourself to use them.

Now that you understand where your distressing emotions come from you can start to manage your emotions, your reactions – and your stress.