◀ All Blog Posts

On the Germ Theory of Emotions

By Randall Buskirk

THU JAN 06, 2022

The germ theory of disease—the fact that microorganisms, or germs, can invade other bodies and cause certain illnesses—has been a great boon to health, thanks to Louis Pasteur and other scientists and physicians in the 19th century. We're right in the thick of it now, of course, with the pandemic.

Another term for germ is pathogen, something that causes a disease to the host body. It's interesting to look at the term itself.

Pathos is rooted in "suffering, feeling, emotion." Gen is to produce or generate. Pathogens produce disease.

Perhaps the notion of a pathogen and its success in advancing medical procedures and health accounts for why our culture seems to have embraced a sort of germ theory of the emotions and mental health.

In this model of emotions, it is as if emotions are a microorganism that we can catch which will produce mental suffering. A pathogen that invades the mind or the subtle body.

All the so-called negative emotions—everything but happiness—such as anger, anxiety, fear, panic, sadness, depression, grief, jealousy, envy, and shame are literally treated as something we "have" or catch, just as you might get anything from a stomach bug to anthrax.

You should somehow inoculate yourself against these emotions, and seek treatment if you have them. They are unhealthy, and really shouldn't be talked about, lest the infectious emotion be spread around.

An often recommended inoculation or treatment is logic or rationality.

But what if the premise of the model were all wrong? What if emotions aren't bad? What if it isn't emotions that cause suffering and need to be prevented or cured? What if they are actually the messengers that deliver us vital information about our psyche in relation to the world? What if the emotions are actually the healers themselves?

Ok, here is a dramatic shift in the metaphor.

Imagine we are working in a coal mine (and trying not to sing that song). And we are keeping one eye on the canary down here with us. And the canary starts to look a little faint.

Should we try to revive the canary, get it out of the bad air, give it some food and water, maybe even ignore it and get on with being productive in the coal mine?

Of course not. The canary is a messenger. It's telling us what's going on with something that's vital to us—the air we are breathing.

Same thing with the emotions. They are messengers. Best to heed them and take the necessary actions they motivate, and not try to eliminate the messengers from the deep and wise parts of our selves.

It's a bit like the healthy role we have discovered for the microorganisms in our gut's microbiome. The emotions are there to support your mental health.

So the first step one might take toward better mental and emotional health is to let go of the germ theory of emotions. Whenever well-meaning healers want to remove your necessary anger, anxiety, grief, and depression, politely say no thanks and trust your innate healing powers.

Find needed help and support when your emotions are too much for you, though, when your balance has gone past your ability to right yourself.

Maybe one day we will look back on these pathological approaches to emotions in the way we now look back upon ancient theories of disease: Sorely lacking, at best.