Here’s what do do about it.
What doesn’t work: Suppressing Negative Emotions
A common approach to dealing with negative emotions is to attempt to suppress, avoid, or deny them. You probably know people who seem stressed, depressed, or anxious to you, but who don’t or can’t see it in themselves. Maybe you’ve tried to talk to them about it, to get them to open up to you, but that conversation when nowhere. People like this seem to act as if there is no problem at all, and they move on with life without dealing with their negative emotions. Maybe you’ve taken a similar approach yourself: Have you ever had an important job interview coming up, or some important task to accomplish that you weren’t excited about, and rather than planning and preparing for these things, you simply ignored the situation entirely?
Research reveals there are clear difficulties with such an approach to negative events. For one, ignoring our problems doesn’t make them go away. Being unable to get work done because we are too depressed, anxious, or stressed will be detrimental to our health, even if we don’t admit it.
Clinical psychologist Victoria Tarrat says that, “Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs. We know that it can affect blood pressure, memory and self-esteem.” And in the long term, says Tarratt, there is an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and problem with memory, aggression, anxiety, and depression.
4 Healthy Habits for Dealing with Negative Emotions
- Acknowledge and embrace negative emotions.
Recognize that you’re feeling a particular way, and give yourself permission to be sad, to cry, to grieve, or to become angry without becoming aggressive. These are all healthy emotions. The question is what does one do with these emotions? Do you “stuff them,” suppress them, keep them to yourself, act out, feel sorry for yourself? And if you do these things with your emotions, you can then ask yourself, “Is this the way I want things to be? What can I do differently?”
As human beings, we are going to have all kinds of emotions — both positive and negative — just like there are all kinds of weather. Such emotions are just a part of being human. By accepting the variety of emotions you have, you are recognizing your full humanity. Emotional acceptance is a more effective strategy than avoidance.
“Emotional acceptance” means we have the willingness and ability to accept and experience a negative emotion, to acknowledge it, and to embrace it. By accepting your emotions, you are learning to accept the truth of the situation (i.e., it is raining). Such acceptance means that you don’t have to spend your precious energy pushing the emotion away, and you can instead turn to pursue the behaviors that are aligned with your goals and values.
2. Realize the healing power of writing.
Resilient people use writing as a way to heal — journaling, keeping a diary, blogging, social networking websites or testimony writing of what happened. Writing out the story of your experience, including emotional “hot spots,” or “stuck points,” and sharing these accounts with people you trust is healing.
Exploring emotions associated with events and people in our past can be like cleansing an aggregating wound that refuses to heal. It can be painful, yes, but afterwards, when the wound is clean, the pain is soothed. The clogged emotional state that kept that wound festering has been bathed and soothes and has a better chance of healing properly.
When you’re writing for emotional healing, it’s important to write as honestly as possible. Doing so connect you to yourself, just like looking in a mirror helps you understand how your own facial expressions appear, or how listening to a recording of your voice helps you understand how you are heard by others.
Writing about difficult or harmful experiences — describing the events, recreating conversations, pain, and emotions, and acknowledging the emotion that still exists as you’re writing — can help you heal. Writing about them allows you to move through, to process, and to release unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
What can you write about? Think about the past — something that happened in that still brings a surge of emotion when you remember it (it can be anger, joy, excitement, fear, or whatever). Write about your feelings and what you could do, if anything, to change how that event played out. You can even rewrite the event as if it actually happened differently. Notice how you feel after doing so.
3. Manage strong emotions (through mindfulness and tactical breathing).
Healthy people know how to manage strong emotions (anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, moral injuries). They learn to rein in the emotional part of their brain, and control their emotions before they have a negative impact on themselves and on others around me.
Negative emotions are signals that something is wrong and that there is a difference between the way a thing is and how you might want it to be.
Emotions are a trigger to activate your action plans, like asking for help or using mindfulness and tactical breathing, or some other coping skills.
4. Engage in less negative thinking.
A key to strengthening one’s resilience, according to noted psychologist Donald Meichenbaum, is the ability to engage in less negative thinking. There are significant benefits if individuals can generate three to four positive thoughts for every negative thought. The goal is not to eliminate the negative thoughts completely. The key is to tip the balance of positive to negative thinking.
Meichenbaum suggest that we “talk to our brain.” The part of your brain that is involved with emotions and memories is the Amygdala — it is your brains “gatekeeper” for incoming emotional memories. Traumatic memories can stay trapped in the Amygdala and can continue to trigger frightening images and strong emotions.
By learning to “talk back to your brain” you can help the Amygdala “loosen its grip” when you need to. You can learn to re-balance your nervous system, teach your brain to separate the past from the present, and you can learn to control your emotions.
A final word about bottling up emotions.
When people keep the trauma they experienced a secret, then it can become toxic to their health and social relationships. Acknowledging our emotions, healing through expressive writing, using mindfulness and breathing to manage strong emotions, and balancing negative thinking with positive thoughts can enhance adjustment and bolster resilience.
What is something you’ll to try today to “let the emotions out?”