Have you ever had a friend or family member tell you to “just get over it” when you felt sad or worried? If getting rid of negative emotions is so easy, why is it that more than 21 million children and adults get diagnosed with depression each year and that depression is the leading cause of disability for adults age 15-44? Why is it that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder? The truth is we can’t just get rid of negative emotions whenever we feel like it. Sometimes we can distract ourselves or think more positively, but at other times the emotions grab hold of us and cling on.
The reason it is such a struggle to combat negative emotions is that they are there for a reason—to warn us of danger and gear up our minds and bodies for escape or self-protection or to help us withdraw and conserve energy when we face a loss. But sometimes these reactions are unwarranted, too intense, or interfere with effective coping and problem-solving. Below are five reasons why negative emotions are so hard to manage.
1. Your brain is wired for survival, not happiness. That is why it keeps bringing up negative emotions, past mistakes and worries about the future. Because of this wiring, you can get stuck in repetitive cycles of self-criticism, worry and fear that interfere with your ability to enjoy the present moment.
2. It doesn’t work to just shove negative emotions down or pretend they don’t exist. Your mind will keep bringing them up again as a reminder that you have an ongoing problem that needs to be handled (even when there is nothing you can actually do to make it better). Research by Daniel Wegner and colleagues suggests that suppressing thoughts while in a negative mood makes it more likely that both the thoughts and the negative mood will reoccur.
3. Your body and mind react to mental images and events as if they are events happening in the real world. Try thinking about smelling and then biting into a lemon. You will likely feel a change in saliva in your mouth. Now think about putting your hand on a hot stove. Do you feel your heart pounding a bit faster? You can get just as stressed by thoughts about an event as by the event itself. When negative feelings become chronic, they wear out your mind and body, causing inflammation, hormonal imbalance, or impaired immunity.
4. Negative thoughts feed on each other. You may worry about not having enough money. Next you think, “What if I lose my job?” Then you wonder you could ask for help and next thing, you’re feeling alone and unsupported. Rumination can turn a controllable problem into a set of insurmountable difficulties.
5. The things you do to avoid or try to cope with feeling negative emotions may be more counterproductive than the emotions themselves. You may turn to alcohol, marijuana, or excess use of prescription drugs to escape feeling bad. These substances can have long-term negative effects on mood and motivation and have addictive properties. Turning to food excessively can lead to overweight or obesity and low self-esteem associated with weight gain. Getting angry and blaming others for your negative emotions can strain your relationships. Retail therapy can lead to debt.
What You Can Do
If suppression doesn’t work, what can you do with sad, angry or anxious feelings? Below are six surprising coping strategies that can help.
1. Allow Feelings In
The feelings will be there anyway, so why not take a look at them? Perhaps they have a message for you about something in your life that needs to change. Perhaps they are a symptom of past, unresolved painful events that need more processing and attention. They may signal strong unmet needs that would be helpful to pay attention to. When you invite emotions in and let them be there, they become less scary and shameful. They will naturally run their course and move on through.
2. Untangle Feelings From Negative Judgments
You may have learned negative messages about emotions from your family or culture. Perhaps you learned emotions are a sign of weakness or that they make you vulnerable and unprotected. As you begin to untangle the feelings themselves from your negative judgments about them, emotions become more palatable. You begin to create more space for them and listen to them more. You become more self-aware of your reactions and of what people and situations are personal triggers.
3. Notice the Connection Between Feelings and Events
Feelings provide information about what you find pleasant or unpleasant; whom you love and whom you fear. Once you understand the connection between events in your life, your thoughts and your feelings, you are better prepared to take good care of yourself and protect your own boundaries. You begin to anticipate how you will react to certain people or events, which allows you to make better choices about how you spend your time. You can anticipate emotionally high-risk situations and prepare coping strategies in advance.
4. Broaden the View
Anxiety and depression make your thinking more rigid—you focus on the negative, which can lead to catastrophizing and magnifying the problem. This makes you feel even more stuck. It can help to deliberately take a step back and to ask yourself if there is a different way to look at the situation, or how an uninvolved observer might see things. Doing something you enjoy instead of worrying can create positive affect that naturally broadens your thinking. This can lead you to come up with more creative solutions that you won’t see when caught up in a negative emotional loop.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is both a set of practices and a way of thinking about life that is based on Buddhist traditions that are 3,000 years old. Being mindful means having a gentle, open and accepting attitude toward your own experiences and surroundings, whatever those may be. As Eckhart Tolle, a writer and spiritual teacher, once stated: “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.” Meditating, focusing on your breath, or taking a nature walk and focusing on the sights, smells, and sounds are good ways to learn how to be mindful. Mindfulness creates a spaciousness of mind that allows emotions to be there without clinging to them.
6. Find Support
Sometimes, emotions can be difficult to manage alone because it’s so hard to step out of your point of view and see things objectively. It can help to get support and feedback from a friend, colleague or family member. Let the person know exactly what you are looking for, whether it is emotional support, information or resources to help. Psychotherapy can provide you with expert guidance, coping strategies and emotional support to calm negative emotions and find clarity and courage to move forward in life.
Although negative emotions are a challenge, there are effective ways to cope. By practicing these strategies, you will become more tolerant of them and less likely to get caught up in downward spirals of gloom and doom.