Why negative emotions aren’t that bad (and how to handle them)

Info & Articles What if negative emotions aren’t so bad?

Negative emotions? Unpleasant feelings? Chances are you have them. And chances are they’ve intensified this past year, as we’ve struggled with the effects of the pandemic. If you’re like us, chances are you’ve tried to push them down or numb them out. The good news about “bad” emotions is that they really aren’t bad at all.

Unpleasant feelings are part of the vast, human emotional spectrum and having the full range of emotions is a sign of good mental health. Grief and sadness are healthy responses to loss. When anger is justifiable, it is a healthy response to mistreatment.

This past year we have been dealing with a significant amount of grief and loss, both as a society, and individually. We might be mourning our pre-pandemic lives. Or grieving for loved ones. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your business. These experiences will create feelings that just aren’t easy.

But feeling all our feelings is simply part of being human, and there may be no such thing as “negative” feelings. In fact, the very feelings we associate with feeling bad are actually good for us. Here are some myths about negative feelings, and the corresponding facts.

Myth: It’s better to suppress – than express – your negative feelings.

Fact: Suppressing your feelings can backfire.

When it comes to emotional behaviours, research shows that recognizing when you’re upset or feeling down is more effective than pushing down those feelings. For instance, studies have shown that emotional cravings for food and alcohol increase when you try to suppress them.

When it comes to anger, if it’s bottled up, it can lead to an unhealthy anger response.

If it is turned inward, anger can lead to depression and other health problems.

ANGER

Myth: Anger will always lead to violence.

Fact: Anger has a very bad rap. It’s not surprising, really, as it is associated with violence and aggression. But feeling and even expressing anger do not have to lead to aggressive behaviour. It is very important to note, however, that when anger is turned outward as aggression, it is destructive and unacceptable.

Myth: Anger serves no constructive purpose.

Fact: Anger can actually be our friend when we’re not acting it out.

When it is justified and appropriate, anger can be constructive. It can help clarify and solve problems and correct misunderstandings in relationships. When people can express their anger calmly, they are more able to resolve conflict. Some researchers suggest that constructive anger can even promote heart health.

When we are threatened or attacked, anger can provide the strength we need to protect ourselves or stand our ground. Social movements fueled by anger can also be effective in overcoming injustice in society.

SADNESS

Myth: Sadness serves no purpose.

Fact: In many cultures, sadness is considered an “undesirable” or “problem” emotion that serves no purpose. In fact, sadness serves important functions. Sadness can trigger thinking and behaviour strategies that help us deal with demanding social situations. It is also a healthy way to process an experience of loss.

Myth: if you’re crying, you’re not coping.

Fact: This is just not true. Crying is an indication of strong feelings, to be sure, but tears are a natural way to work through grief, loss and sadness.

FEAR

Myth: Fear causes us to freeze in our tracks, which makes us open to danger.

Fact: In fact, fear makes human beings get out of harm’s way. Instinctively. We don’t even have to think about it. That’s because our species evolved fear as a way to respond quickly to dangerous situations – which is known as the “fight or flight” response. It allows us to make our escape, and it was essential to our survival. At the same time, being fearful puts us on high alert, bringing us back to the present moment, which can make us better able to deal with danger.

What it boils down to it this: go ahead and feel what you feel. Even if it’s hard or uncomfortable. It may not always be pretty, but it can do you good.

Of course, if anger, sadness or fear are causing you distress, and these feelings last for a long time, are very intense and/or are interfering with your ability to function, they may indicate a problem. Please seek help from a healthcare provider. It is also important to reinforce that anger expressed inappropriately as threat or violence cannot be tolerated.

What to Do When You Feel Stuck in Negative Emotions

According to a new book, the key is “emotional agility”: being less rigid and more flexible with our thoughts and feelings.

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We’ve all been there: A strong emotion like anger or fear sucks us in and suddenly we can’t seem to control the things we say or do, hurting ourselves and those around us.

“We act like wind-up toys, repeatedly bumping into the same walls, never realizing there may be an open door just to our left or our right,” writes Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.

Her book is a guide to life’s trickiest emotions: not how to avoid them but how to learn to move through them. If we have the courage to do this, she argues, we will cultivate deeper relationships and a more authentic life.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

When we get stuck—i.e., held in thrall of a particularly nasty feeling—there are a few common culprits, writes David.

  • Monkey mind: We’ve spiraled off into a cascade of regret about the past, worry about the future, or judgments about ourselves.
  • Old ideas: We’re repeating old thoughts and behaviors that no longer fit the current reality, like “I always choke in important situations” or “I’m not good enough for him.”
  • Righteousness: Our need to be right leads to conflict with others, rather than forgiveness and understanding.
  • Blaming thoughts for behaviors: Because we think certain things—“I always choke”—we feel compelled to take certain actions, like avoiding public speaking. We fail to recognize that we could choose a different path.

The way we cope with negative feelings often serves to keep us stuck. Some of us bottle our emotions, trying to ignore them and soldier on. In the process, we end up stressing out the people around us and may find those feelings “leaking out” in other ways: anger at a cashier, for example, when our real anger is directed toward someone else.

More on Emotional Agility

In contrast to bottlers, brooders rehash feelings over and over in their heads, not generating productive insights but simply reliving the pain. Brooders can become very self-focused, writes David, and they may start to judge and blame themselves for their feelings.

Finally, sometimes inspired by the self-help industry, many of us respond to negative emotions by forcing ourselves to be positive. “This isn’t such a big deal,” we might tell ourselves, or “I should feel grateful for everything I have.” Yet trying to reason away our negative emotions and feel good all the time can be detrimental to our mental health.

David calls these unhealthy responses being “hooked.” The feelings have snagged us, in one way or another: We aren’t aware of them yet they’re influencing our behavior; we’re completely drowning in them; or we’re constantly fighting them off in order to stay chipper.

How to cultivate emotional agility

To get unhooked, we first have to acknowledge the hook—in other words, to be mindful and accepting of our feelings, David explains. In one study, for example, researchers found that smokers were more successful at quitting after participating in a program based on accepting, observing, and detaching from their cravings.

Other research shows that people with alexithymia—who cannot put their feelings into words—have poorer mental health, less satisfying jobs and relationships, and more aches and pains. And naming your feelings isn’t as simple as saying “I’m stressed,” explains David; often, underlying such generic feelings are more uncomfortable emotions like frustration or hopelessness.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (Avery, 2016, 288 pages)

The point of identifying these feelings is not to beat ourselves up, though. In fact, if we want to make improvements in the future, the best approach is self-compassion. With the clarity it brings, we can try to understand what the feelings are telling us—what we can learn about our desires, boundaries, or needs.

David recounts a time when she was traveling for work and, alone in a fancy hotel room, began to feel guilty for leaving her family. Rather than getting hooked by the guilt and smothering her feelings with five-star room service, she instead chose to pause and learn from it: to remind herself how much she values time with her loved ones, and to recommit to prioritizing them.

One way to get some perspective on a difficult feeling is to use language—to say, “I’m having the thought that…I’m a bad mother” or “I’m having the emotion of…shame.” In one coaching exercise, David invites a group of participants to write their deepest insecurities on a name tag—“I’m boring” or “I’m unlovable”—and introduce themselves to everyone else, as if at a party. Somehow, putting our feelings into words gives them less power.

Looking at our predicament from another person’s perspective is another way to gain some distance. For example, what would my friends think? They probably wouldn’t say you’re an incompetent employee and a poor excuse for a spouse. Eventually, by sitting with our feelings in this way, they may pass—along with the fatalistic stories we’ve concocted in our heads. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever return, but we’ll be more prepared if they do.

Emotional agility sets us up to thrive in life, David argues. Negative emotions can be clues to our deepest values, and the ways in which we may have gotten off track. Loneliness reminds us to make time for our relationships, for example, and anxiety might mean we’ve taken on too many projects. Once we’ve identified these inconsistencies, we can make small course corrections to point us in the right direction: setting up a weekly dinner with friends, for example, or deciding to say no to commitments in the near future.

If you’re familiar with mindfulness research, parts of David’s book will probably sound familiar. But where she adds value is in the step-by-step explanation of what to do in those mindless moments of pain that we all know too well. Eventually, we can honor our feelings but not be ruled by them.

“[Emotional agility] is about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system,” writes David. “[It’s] about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention.”

First, I get angry at the situation. Why can’t the stupid trains just run on a schedule? Why did I seem to hit every possible “don’t walk” sign as I sprinted to the station? Why does the world have it out for me?!

Then, I get mad at myself for getting mad. Why am I letting a silly train ruin my day? Don’t I know better by now? What’s the point of doing all those meditations and breathing exercises if I go nuclear at the sight of closing subway doors?

I’m not the only one to get upset at myself for how I feel. A recent study shines light on “meta-emotions,” or emotions about your emotions, finding that humans have a range of feelings about feelings, and experience them regularly.

Confused? Let me break it down: Say you’re in a great mood—you could probably label the way you’re feeling as “happy.” But how do you feel about feeling happy? Maybe it’s been a while since you last felt such unbridled joy, and you’re relieved by your good mood. Perhaps everyone around you is upset, which leaves you feeling guilty about that smile on your face. Or, maybe you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, nervous that your good mood will turn sour. That’s your meta-emotions in action.

"Meta-emotions can be classified into four types: negative-negative (e.g., feeling embarrassed about feeling sad), negative-positive (e.g., feeling guilty about feeling happy), positive-positive (e.g., feeling hopeful about feeling relieved), and positive-negative (e.g., feeling pleased about feeling angry),” write the study authors. “In our study, negative-negative meta-emotions were the most common type. This indicates that many people get upset, nervous, or angry about their own negative emotions, in particular."

'Meta-emotions' are emotions about your emotions.

The study found that over half of participants experienced at least one meta-emotion over the course of a week, and that those super-charged feelings might even be linked to their general mental health.

The researchers aren’t sure why some people experience meta-emotions more than others, but guess that it could have something to do with upbringing—if your parents weren’t big on showing emotion, you might tend to have negative reactions to your own moods. What they do know is that your meta-emotions aren’t as out of your control as you might think.

“Importantly, experiencing negative-negative meta-emotions is not inherently a bad thing,” write the researchers. “The trick may lie in learning to understand these emotions and being flexible about the way you cope with them.”

Here’s how to do it.

ID Your Feels

Step one is to break down your emotions—to separate the underlying emotion from how it’s making you feel. Your meta-emotion might be camouflaging your true emotions, or ever protecting you from experiencing them.

Say you and your sister have one of your famous holiday blowups. You might be coursing with anger, mad at yourself for falling into her trap again, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find sadness underneath.

The next time you find yourself deep in emotions, pause. Ask: What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling it? How do I wish I felt, or expect the best version of me to feel in this situation?

Once you understand how you’re really feeling, you’ll have a clearer idea of how to act.

Understand the Importance of Meta-Emotions

Let’s go back to my train stress.

First I got angry at the trains, and then I got mad at myself for being angry in the first place. At the time, my anger seemed pointless, and even a little embarrassing—wasn’t all that rage a waste of time? Not necessarily. The study authors advocate for appreciating your negative emotions and the ways they might help you.

Your negative emotions are important signals that alert you when something is not right in your environment.

“If you didn’t get angry when treated unfairly, you might not be motivated to make needed changes to your situation,” they write. “Your negative emotions are important signals that alert you when something is not right in your environment. They can also serve as signals to others that you need help or support. When you are feeling anxious, for example, a friend might notice the muscle tension in your face or a change in your voice and ask you what is wrong.”

In my case, my frustration over missing the train might prompt me to leave a little earlier the next day, so as not to miss it again. When I think of my reaction that way, it doesn’t seem like such a waste of energy.

Practice a Little Self-Kindness

Those rush of emotions you feel? They’re a sign that you’re a living, breathing human. So the next time you get sad, or angry, and then sad or angry about being sad or angry, take a deep breath and take a moment to forgive yourself.

If you’re alone with a few minutes to spare, try taking a self-compassion break, as detailed here: Start by really experiencing the moment: What words or phrases has your inner voice been using? Does your body feel tight or pained? Are you clenching your jaw?

Then, tell yourself (either out loud or silently): “This is a moment of suffering.” By naming the experience, you’re staying mindful and centered in the moment.

Next, tell yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This helps normalize the experience, and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t unique or bad.

Finally, place your hands over your heart, breathe in, and say, “May I be kind to myself.”

Don’t beat yourself up for the negativity or linger on what you could’ve done better. Just ground yourself, remember that this is a universal experience, and try to slowly move on.

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Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

Chances are you have them. Chances are they’ve intensified this past year, as we’ve struggled with the effects of the pandemic.

Chances are you’ve tried to push them down or numb them out. The good news about “bad” emotions is that they really aren’t bad at all.

This past year we have been dealing with a significant amount of grief and loss, both as a society, and individually.

We might be mourning our pre-pandemic lives or grieving for loved ones. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your business. These experiences will create feelings that just aren’t easy.

Feeling all our feelings is simply part of being human, and there may be no such thing as “negative” feelings.

In fact, the very feelings we associate with feeling bad are actually good for us. Here are some myths about negative feelings, and the corresponding facts.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)Myth: It’s better to suppress – than express – your negative feelings.

Fact: Suppressing your feelings can backfire.

When it comes to emotional behaviours, research shows that recognizing when you’re upset or feeling down is more effective than pushing down those feelings. Studies have shown that emotional cravings for food and alcohol increase when you try to suppress them.

ANGER

Myth: Anger serves no constructive purpose.

Fact: Anger can actually be our friend when we’re not acting it out. When justified and appropriate, anger can be constructive. It can help clarify and solve problems and correct misunderstandings. When people can express their anger calmly, they are more able to resolve conflict. Some researchers suggest that constructive anger can even promote heart health.

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When we are threatened or attacked, anger can provide the strength we need to protect ourselves or stand our ground. Social movements fueled by anger can also be effective in overcoming injustice in society.

SADNESS

Myth: Sadness serves no purpose.

Fact: In many cultures, sadness is considered an “undesirable” or “problem” emotion that serves no purpose. In fact, sadness serves important functions. Sadness can trigger thinking and behaviour strategies that help us deal with demanding social situations. It is also a healthy way to process an experience of loss.

Myth: if you’re crying, you’re not coping.

Fact: This is just not true. Crying is an indication of strong feelings, to be sure, but tears are a natural way to work through grief, loss and sadness.

FEAR

Myth: Fear causes us to freeze in our tracks, which makes us open to danger.

Fact: In fact, fear makes human beings get out of harm’s way. Instinctively. We don’t even have to think about it. That’s because our species evolved fear as a way to respond quickly to dangerous situations – which is known as the “fight or flight” response. It allows us to make our escape, and it was essential to our survival. At the same time, being fearful puts us on high alert, bringing us back to the present moment, which can make us better able to deal with danger.

What it boils down to it this: go ahead and feel what you feel. Even if it’s hard or uncomfortable. It may not always be pretty, but it can do you good. If anger, sadness or fear are causing you distress, and these feelings last for a long time, are very intense and/or are interfering with your ability to function, they may indicate a problem. Please seek help.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

How can we best deal with our day-to-day emotional reactions? What can we do when our partner lets us down, when we have a struggle with our child, or when we feel provoked by a friend? Oddly enough, the first piece of advice is to stay with the pain. It turns out we expend much more energy avoiding the pains of our existence than we do when we actually face our feelings. Often, we cause ourselves much more misery through our attempts to defend against our unpleasant emotions. Also, in trying not to feel our feelings, we become unnecessarily defended and many times end up hurting others. We can stand to feel even agonizing feelings. Going toward the pain allows us to feel it and then move on. This process enables us to be more emotionally adaptable. It also makes us more adaptive in how we respond to emotionally challenging interactions. When we face our pain rather than avoid it, we are more likely to wake up feeling refreshed and better the next day, rather than staying stuck with the negative feelings. People who don’t let themselves experience their emotions can become symptomatic, get depressed and anxious, or turn to substances to quell their feelings.

We often tend to avoid situations where we expect to be humiliated. When we defend ourselves against possibly looking like a fool, we miss out on taking chances and on pursuing the things we want full out. When we open ourselves up to humiliation, we realize what we often fear is not actually that bad; it certainly isn’t life threatening. When we take the initiative and expose whatever we are most humiliated about, we feel stronger and freer. We aren’t secretly harboring thoughts that if people knew this or that about us, they would not like us or would reject us. Overall, dealing with our feelings of humiliation straightforwardly makes us more resilient, flexible, adaptive, and functional in our lives.

Our overall outlook on life and what we expect from it has a lot to do with how we handle challenges. If we expect life to be “happy” or feel we deserve for things to go our way, we set ourselves up for disappointment and risk feeling “wronged.” It turns out it is much more adaptive for us to recognize the reality that life is painful. In facing existential realities, and accepting that we are going to die soon (even if it’s in a hundred years, that’s too soon), we are prepared to experience painful situations such as aging, deterioration, and loss. Even though these are truly some of the most difficult emotions to face, when we don’t avoid them, we are in fact full of life. Without feeling them, we can’t have a full appreciation of being alive. It also makes us mindful that every member of the human race is in the same boat and suddenly all of the differences that divide us become petty and meaningless. If you don’t gloss over these painful existential realities, it gives you a compassionate perspective toward yourself and others.

It is important to know yourself. What gives you meaning in life? What are your personal values? When you know yourself, you know what you are doing with your life. My father, psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone exemplifies this principle, recently stating,

I knew early in life what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. I wanted to make a contribution and I wanted to help people. I didn’t want to be insignificant, I wanted to be significant and I wanted to share life and I wanted to experience it, I wanted to feel everything… I didn’t want to miss anything. I didn’t expect it to be pleasant. I really knew my values. I knew what kind of person I wanted to be, how I would act in different circumstances. I imitated people who I admired. I listened to people talk about what caused them misery with other people, and I wanted to fix any of those traits in myself. I paid a lot of attention to what hurts other people, and I decided I would not act in those ways.

When it comes to relationships, it is still useful to not to defend against our own feelings but it is also advisable to be aware of the feelings that the other person is experiencing. It is important to not to get so hung up in our personal point of view that we lose site of theirs. When we feel hurt by someone or angry at them, instead of letting those feelings completely take over, we can keep perspective; we can take an interest in what the other person is feeling in the same situation. This allows us to see the bigger picture of what is going on and to recognize all the layers of experience.

In the interest of being resilient, it is valuable to stay in the present moment and not allow our reactions to be based on our past. Often, when we get hurt or have a strong response in our adult interactions, we are overreacting based on our past. The current conflict may trigger unresolved emotions from our childhood. The way the other person is reacting to us, the word they used to describe us, or their persona may resemble someone or some relationship that was significant in our past. This especially occurs in our closest relationships, those with our partners and children, where we may project traits of our early caretakers, the persons we were originally most vulnerable to, onto these new figures in our lives and react to them based on our old projections.

When we find ourselves having a strong emotional response that might not be appropriate to the situation, we can stop and take a moment to reflect on how our reaction may be influenced by our past experiences. We can come to learn about our particular “triggers,” those situations or traits that we are over-reactive to or that we tend to see where they don’t actually exist. As we make sense of these reactions and how they relate to our past, and therefore have compassion for ourselves, we will be less reactive in our current lives and more adaptive in our responses and behavior.

In order be a person who does not let their emotional reactions “get the better of them,” who does not get stuck in negative feelings, and does not get defended, it is imperative to develop our ability to be vulnerable, compassionate, feelingful, present, and mindful. We need to be willing to fully feel our feelings, not run from pain. We need to know ourselves and be the person we want to be in our lives. We need to be willing to face the existential realities we all face as human beings. We need to keep perspective that our “reality” may differ from that experienced even by the people closest to us. We need to stay present to the reality of the moment we are living in and free ourselves from overlays on that reality from our past. By developing these abilities within ourselves, we enrich our lives with meaning and maintain a level of resilience that frees us to take on life’s inevitable challenges and reach our personal goals.

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified pediatric psychologist, parent coach, author, speaker, and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology, PLLC.

Mentally strong kids understand that they can be in control of their emotions rather than allowing their emotions to control them. Kids who know how to regulate their feelings can manage their behavior and keep negative thoughts at bay. But, children aren’t born with an understanding of their emotions and they don’t inherently know how to express their feelings in socially appropriate ways.

A child who doesn’t know how to manage his anger may exhibit aggressive behavior and frequent angry outbursts. Similarly, a child who doesn’t know what to do when he feels sad may spend hours pouting by himself.

When children don’t understand their emotions, they may also avoid anything that feels uncomfortable. For example, a child who is really shy in social situations may avoid joining a new activity because she lacks confidence in her ability to tolerate the discomfort associated with trying new things.

Teaching kids to regulate their emotions can reduce a lot of behavior problems. A child who understands her emotions will also be better prepared to deal with uncomfortable situations and she’s more likely to perform at her peak. With coaching and practice, kids can learn that they can cope with their feelings in a healthy manner.

Teach Personal Responsibility

While it’s healthy for kids to experience a wide array of emotions, it’s equally important for them to recognize they have some control over their feelings. A child who had a rough day at school can choose after-school activities that boost her mood. And a child who is angry about something her brother did can find ways to calm herself down.

Teach your child about feelings and help her understand that intense emotions shouldn’t serve as an excuse to justify misbehavior. Feeling angry doesn’t give her a right to hit someone and feelings of sadness don’t have to lead to moping around for hours on end.

Teach your child that he’s responsible for her own behavior and it’s not acceptable to blame others for her feelings. If your child hits her brother and claims it because he made her mad, correct her terminology. Explain that everyone is in charge of their own feelings and their own behavior. While her brother may have influenced her behavior, he didn’t make her feel anything.

It’s equally important to remind your child that she’s not in charge of other people’s emotions. If she makes a healthy choice, and someone else becomes angry, that’s OK. It’s an important lesson that kids need to be reinforced throughout their lives, so they can resist peer pressure and make healthy decisions for themselves. Instilling good values and strong character will give your child confidence in her ability to make good decisions, despite other people’s disapproval.

Practice Tolerating Uncomfortable Emotions

Uncomfortable emotions often serve a purpose. If you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, anxiety is a normal emotional response that is meant to alert us to danger. But, sometimes we experience fear and anxiety unnecessarily.

Teach your child that just because she feels nervous about something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. For example, if she’s afraid to join the soccer team because she’s nervous she won’t know any of the other kids, encourage her to play anyway. Facing her fears—when it’s safe to do so—will help her see she’s capable of more than she thinks.

Sometimes kids become so used to avoiding the discomfort that they begin to lose confidence in themselves. They think, “I could never do that, it’d be too scary.” As a result, they miss out on a lot of opportunities in life.

Gently push your child to step outside her comfort zone. Praise her efforts and make it clear that you care more about her willingness to try, rather than the outcome. Teach her how to use mistakes, failure, and uncomfortable situations as opportunities to learn and grow better.

How to Help Change a Child's Negative Mood

Children’s moods are often highly dependent upon external circumstances. A child may be happy while she’s playing and sad moments later when it’s time to leave. Then, her mood may quickly shift to excitement when she learns she’ll be stopping for ice cream on the way home.

Teach your child that her moods don’t have to depend completely on external circumstances. Instead, she can have some control over how she feels, regardless of the situation.

Empower your child to take steps to improve her mood. That doesn’t mean she has to suppress her emotions or ignore them, but it does mean she can take steps to help herself feel better so she doesn’t get stuck in a bad mood. Pouting, isolating himself, or complaining for hours will only keep her feeling bad.

Help your child identify choices she can make to calm herself down when she’s angry or cheer herself up when she’s feeling bad. Identify specific activities that can boost her mood. While coloring may help one child calm down, another child may benefit from playing outside to burn off energy.

Identify specific choices your child can make when she’s feeling bad and encourage her to practice trying to help herself feel better. When you catch her moping, for example, try saying, “I think moping around today may make you stay stuck in a bad mood. I wonder what you could do to help your mood?” Encouraging your child to get active or do something different will empower your child to take control of her emotions in a healthy manner.

Grabbing your phone in a moment of loneliness isn't always a bad thing. But if you’re seeking long-term solutions, learning to process negative feelings is best.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

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We are masters of distraction, and our society makes it easier than ever. Nearly half of Americans spend at least five hours on their phone each day, according to a survey conducted last February, and the average American spends about 3 hours each day watching television.

Anytime we feel an uncomfortable emotion surfacing, we often do what we can to make ourselves feel better in the moment — whether that means scrolling through Instagram, watching videos on TikTok, online shopping or binge watching a favorite television show . It doesn’t matter if a person is bored, lonely, angry or sad; they reach for their phone.

But does distraction really help deal with emotions? Or does it merely exacerbate the problem? According to experts, the answer is a mixed bag. Sure, in some ways it can help, but oftentimes distraction avoids the root of the problem.

What Are Emotions Anyway?

Before discussing emotional distraction, says Carolyn MacCann, an associate professor at the University of Sydney who studies emotional intelligence and regulation, let’s first understand the definition of an emotion.

Researchers largely agree that emotions evolved from survival instincts. First, our brains notice and evaluate a situation and decide its personal relevance through a process called appraisal. Then, the emotion in question causes physiological changes and often evokes action. For example, if you’re sad, you retreat. If you’re angry, you approach. At the same time, the onset of an emotion makes us feel a certain way.

But often, in the loud world in which we live nowadays, avoiding an emotion is easier than processing it. And this, says MacCann, isn’t always a bad thing. During the sequencing of an emotion, distraction is what psychologists call an “attention deployment strategy” that occurs when we first notice an emotion. “There’s pretty good evidence that distraction can help regulate emotions,” MacCann says. “Distraction can help down regulate the anxiety around a negative emotion.”

It works because we avert our attention early in the onset of an emotion, so we’re less likely to have felt any negative feelings or physiological changes around it. Additionally, she says, if you have a clinical condition such as PTSD that makes facing strong negative emotions unsafe without professional support, then distraction is your best bet in the moment — until you have the tools and therapy to deal with your own triggers.

Distracting vs Numbing

According to MacCann, distraction occurs earlier in the trajectory of an emotion than numbing yourself, and therefore is a more effective tool for regulation. Numbing — for example, via emotional eating or by turning to alcohol and drugs — takes place after the emotion has happened and you’re dealing with the repercussions.

Once an emotion sets in, it’s already changing the way you feel. Someone may reach for various outside substances, from doughnuts to drugs, to temporarily soften the pangs of sadness or cloud their shame, but once the brain’s reward system recovers, that person is back where they started and often worse off.

But distraction isn’t a true fix either, says MacCann, because it only works in the short-term. Getting to the root of your issues is the only way to keep them from coming up again. Luckily, learning to sit with an emotion can help and it doesn’t take as long as you might think.

Facing Your Feelings

While there are longer mood states that last days or months, most emotions only last a few minutes before they pass, according to MacCann. That’s why, if you’re seeking long-term solutions, learning to process emotions is the only way. And research has shown that accepting negative emotions is good for your mental health.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression , agrees. “Often times, when we feel anxiety, it’s because we have emotions like fear, anger and sadness, that’s we’re trying to push down,” she says. “Maybe you were taught when you were young that certain emotions were not OK or maybe your emotions feel overwhelming. Whatever the reason, it’s about learning to tolerate them in a safe way.”

Jacobs Hendel uses a process called the “ change triangle ,” which involves connecting your feet to the floor, deep belly breathing, slowing down and then identifying where different emotions are felt in the body. “We feel like emotions are going to get bigger when we focus on them, but in reality, the opposite is true,” she says.

When you have too many emotions, she says, it can cause anxiety. But when you slow down and make space for your emotions, you can start to process them. And feeling them in the body is a good place to start — once anxiety goes down, you can identify the other emotions that are coming up in your body.

Grabbing your phone in a moment of weakness isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short-term. But if the same emotions keep coming up and causing you stress, learning to sit with them and work through them is the only way to move past trauma in the long-term, says Jacobs Hendel. Whether you feel like you’re reaching the ends of the internet or you just want to be present for the life you’re living, both MacCann and Jacobs Hendel agree that (regardless of the decision to seek professional help) facing your emotions may help you see that they aren’t quite as scary as you initially thought.

When picturing health, your mind may go directly to the physical. However, emotions also play a strong role in well-being. Studies have shown a connection between regulated mental health and the body’s physical health. A more holistic health approach will consider the state of both your mind and body, often referred to as the mind-body connection.

What Is Emotional Health?

Emotional health is one aspect of mental health. It is your ability to cope with both positive and negative emotions, which includes your awareness of them. Emotionally healthy people have good coping mechanisms for negative emotions, and they also know when to reach out to a professional for help.

Emotional wellness is tied to physical health. People who experience great amounts of stress and negative emotions will sometimes develop other health problems. These problems are not caused directly by the negative feelings, but by behaviors that negative emotions can influence due to a lack of emotional regulation. For example, some people enjoy smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol as a way to relieve stress. However, those habits put you at a greater risk for cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.

Keep in mind that a person can experience mental illness or bad days, and still have good emotional wellness. Mental illnesses often have deeper causes like a chemical imbalance or trauma. Emotional health has more to do with emotional regulation, awareness, and coping skills, and these strategies can be used by people with or without a mental illness.

How to Know if You’re Struggling With Emotional Health

Some warning signs of emotional health in need of care include:

  • Isolating yourself from friends, family, or coworkers
  • Lower energy than usual
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Increased use of substances
  • Racing thoughts
  • Lower performance at work
  • More interpersonal conflicts than usual
  • Feelings of irritability, guilt, hopelessness, or worthlessness
  • Neglecting hygiene and personal care

How to Work On Your Emotional Health

There are many ways to maintain or even improve your emotional health which include:

Living a balanced lifestyle. Try to have a good balance between work and your personal life, activity and resting, and moderation in all things.

Stay connected. Community is important. Plan regular shared time with friends and family members. Virtual connections are good, but seeing someone in person once in a while is helpful too.

Meditate. Meditation helps you to notice your thoughts and emotions, which is key to emotional wellness.

Watch how you talk about yourself. Negative self-talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or just put you in a negative mindset. Work on creating a positive image of yourself with your words. Your thoughts may soon follow.

Set goals and celebrate your achievements. Give yourself something to strive for, and celebrate your accomplishments to build self-esteem and positive feelings about yourself.

Use substances in moderation. Sometimes drinking too much alcohol is a way to numb difficult emotions. Notice when you are using substances more than usual, and think about whether there’s an emotional cause for this.

Learn strategies for resilience. This is your ability to react to difficult emotions and stressful situations. Many of the same things that help you with emotional health can also improve your resilience.

Get enough sleep. Studies show that a lack of sleep lessens your ability to sense the emotions of others and your ability to process emotions in general.

Exercise. Staying physically active for at least 30 minutes a day can help to improve your overall emotional health. The exercise doesn’t need to be overly tough or intense. Just going for a walk or dancing around your house can help.

Find meaning in your life. Some people have jobs that give them a feeling of purpose, but that’s not the only way to find meaning in your life. Something as simple as caring for a pet or volunteering for a cause that you’re passionate about can also give you that feeling.

Know when to reach out for help. You don’t have to handle negative emotions on your own. Knowing when to reach out to a mental health professional for help with difficult emotions is a useful skill to have. You should also reach out to one if you have tried to improve your emotional health, but still aren’t feeling your best.

Show Sources

familydoctor.org: “Mental Health: Keeping Your Emotional Health.”

HelpGuide: “Building Better Mental Health.”

Journal of Sleep Research: “The effects of sleep deprivation on emotional empathy.”

In the midst of a raging pandemic and widespread social unrest, these days it can feel as if reassuring platitudes are inescapable.

“Everything will be fine.”

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“It could be worse.”

“Look on the bright side.”

But as well intentioned as those who lean on such phrases may be, experts are cautioning against going overboard with the “good vibes only” trend. Too much forced positivity is not just unhelpful, they say — it’s toxic.

“While cultivating a positive mind-set is a powerful coping mechanism, toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative,” said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones.”

Think of it as having “a few too many scoops of ice cream,” Dattilo said.

“It’s really good and it makes us feel better, but you can overdo it,” she said. “Then, it makes us sick.

“Or trying to shove ice cream into somebody’s face when they don’t feel like having ice cream,” she continued. “That’s not really going to make them feel better.”

With data indicating that anxiety and depression, among other mental health problems, have surged to historic levels in recent months, adding toxic positivity to the mix may only exacerbate the rising tide of negative emotions by preventing people from working through the serious issues they’re experiencing in a healthy way, experts say.

“By far the most common [phrase] is ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It will be fine,’ ” said Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “You’re stating that there really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed, period. You’re kind of shutting out the possibility for further contemplation.”

The exact origins of the label “toxic positivity” are murky, but Preston said the idea is rooted in American culture, which values positivity.

“It’s an attractive behavior in people that makes them seem more well adapted and more popular with their peers, so there are a lot of reasons people want to seem or be positive,” said Preston, who specializes in empathy, altruism and the way emotions affect behavior.

But people who are genuinely effusive and upbeat aren’t the issue, she said.

“It’s a problem when people are forced to seem or be positive in situations where it’s not natural or when there’s a problem that legitimately needs to be addressed that can’t be addressed if you don’t deal with the fact that there is distress or need,” she said.

Take, for example, negative emotions stemming from the current state of the country.

Denying, minimizing or invalidating those feelings through external pressure or your own thoughts can be “counterproductive and harmful,” Dattilo said.

“ ‘Looking on the bright side’ in the face of tragedy of dire situations like illness, homelessness, food insecurity, unemployment or racial injustice is a privilege that not all of us have,” she said. “So promulgating messages of positivity denies a very real sense of despair and hopelessness, and they only serve to alienate and isolate those who are already struggling.”

Internalizing such messages can also be damaging, she said.

“We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt,” she said. “We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem solving.”

Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them, may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. One 2018 study tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults and found that people who habitually avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse.

“People who tend to not judge their feelings, not think about their emotions as good or bad, not try to avoid or put distance between themselves and their emotions, these people tend to have better mental health across the board,” said Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author.

Desperately wanting to feel happy can leave people experiencing what Ford calls a “meta-emotion,” or “an emotion about an emotion.” That meta-emotion is often disappointment, she said, because you aren’t as happy as you want to be.

“Those moments of essentially negativity accumulate over time and can damage mental health,” she said.

There are a number of ways to address negative feelings without falling into toxic positivity, according to experts.

It’s important for people to normalize and label their experiences while removing any expectations and goals that they should feel better than they do, Dattilo said.

“Recognize that how you feel is valid, no matter what,” she said, later adding, “It’s okay not to be okay.”

Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Philadelphia, recommended mindfulness techniques that allow people to sit with their emotions.

“There is no rush to have to do something to get out of the present moment,” Zuckerman said. “In fact, the more that you do that, the more discomfort and anxiety you’ll feel. It’s okay not feeling okay, and it’s okay not knowing what to do with yourself in that moment.”

She also encouraged people to set personal goals focused on behaviors instead of feelings.

“Not ‘I want to be happier’ because happier is an emotion, but if I had a video camera on you, what would you be doing that I could see that I would know you were happy?” she said.

But Zuckerman cautioned against feeling pressure to tackle lofty tasks such as picking up a new hobby or learning a foreign language — activities that have been promoted on social media during the pandemic as people have rushed to reframe coronavirus lockdowns as a positive experience.

“To expect that this time is going to be the time to make yourself better and to change yourself, that’s the toxic positivity,” she said, noting, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to make the best of it, but making the best of it is different from toxic positivity. Making the best of it is accepting the situation as it is and doing the best you can with it, whereas toxic positivity is avoidance of the fact that we’re in a really bad situation.”

If you don’t come out of this quarantine with:

1) a new skill
2) starting what you’ve been putting off
3) more knowledge

You're perfectly okay. Your mental health is key right now, alongside your physical well-being. It's a pandemic, not an artists residency. We'll survive. https://t.co/LQTBDT9XMn

— Sayantan Ghosh (@sayantansunnyg) April 6, 2020

Using the appropriate language is equally critical to steering clear of toxic positivity, especially when trying to be supportive to others, said Debra Kaysen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

We all have people in our lives that always seem happy and appear to have a permanent smile. Their energy is upbeat and glowing with positivity. Have you ever wondered why you can’t be more like them?

Here’s a little secret: They aren’t always happy. They are not showing their authentic range of emotions to others. Their overly happy persona is an unhealthy tool they use to mask potential negativity. They likely struggle to cope with tough emotions, so they avoid them altogether.

Here’s the impact: When you avoid negative emotions, you deprive yourself of fully experiencing positive emotions.

Think about it — if you fear negative emotions, feeling good emotions is a vulnerable place to be. To fully feel happy, grateful, joyful or pleasurable, you must be in tune with your genuine emotions. The risk is that at any point, something could change and, if you are fully in tune with your feelings, you will then potentially feel disappointed, abandoned, hurt, or rejected. You can’t feel good without the risk of feeling bad. People who fear negative emotions avoid them by numbing the whole range of emotions.

So, people who are always happy aren’t just lucky and don’t experience negative emotions? No, because it’s not human. All our emotions serve a purpose. When we are in a healthy state, we feel the range as a means of survival and wellbeing.

Here’s an example: Even in the healthiest relationships, partners let each other down and cause hurt and disappointment. It may not be intentional, but it is unavoidable. If we didn’t care about the person, it wouldn’t hurt. Because we care and we had a certain expectation that was maybe misunderstood or miscommunicated, your partner’s behavior can cause hurt and disappointment.

In a healthy relationship, you are able to notice these feelings, communicate your feelings and needs, problem solve together, and heal. This is how relationships grow stronger. If you deprive yourself of feeling this hurt and disappointment, you block the opportunity to have authentic communication. Your needs go unmet, and eventually the relationship grows strained.

This concept is true in every scenario in life personally and professionally, and even individually (it doesn’t have to involve a relationship with others).

Admirable Attitude

If you find yourself envious of people who appear happy all the time, be aware they are not always happy. However, I am an advocate of being inspired by people who have a good attitude. That manifests as being able to acknowledge, experience, and communicate negative emotions honestly. They also balance that with seeing the good in situations, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and focusing on healthy action steps to cope with negative experiences.

Surround yourself with those people and practice owning your attitude in every situation. It comes naturally for some people, while others may need practice.

For those of you realizing you might be avoiding negative emotions, the good news is you can learn how to cope more effectively and build confidence to live more authentically.

Start by having some compassion for yourself. It’s likely you were never taught how to cope with negative feelings. But don’t blame your parents, there’s a good chance they were not taught either. This isn’t about blame, but about gaining insight and compassion for your struggle.

Recognize and Understand

Let’s get to know and understand your negative emotions.

  1. Sad: When you cut yourself, you bleed. The blood immediately draws attention to your wound and you nurture it by cleaning and bandaging the wound. Eventually a scar develops to hold the skin together. Your sadness is your soul bleeding. Something hurt emotionally and it needs some TLC. Just as bleeding is a natural part of our healing, the sadness needs room to release.
  2. Mad: This emotion is our little internal judge. It’s a natural emotion we feel when someone does something against our beliefs and values. It protects us from putting ourselves repeatedly in a situation where we will be mistreated.
  3. Scared: This is your personal security guard. It brings awareness to potential danger. It’s important for your safety to notice its alerts. Keep in mind, it’s an alert and not always a cue of definite danger. You have the ability to pay attention, assess the situation, and report back if it is in fact dangerous or safe territory.

How wonderful that our brains provide us with these safety measures to protect us mentally, emotionally, and physically! So why do people try so hard to suppress these feelings? They are uncomfortable. Or, if they don’t know how to process these uncomfortable feelings, there is a fear they will be all-consuming.

The key is to start by understanding the purpose of the emotions and notice how they are trying to serve you. Once you can be authentic with yourself, you can communicate authentically and respectfully to others what you are feeling and what you need. While that can feel vulnerable, the benefit is that by working through this process, you will finally get a true read of who is willing to nurture your feelings and who isn’t. When people repeatedly neglect your needs, it’s your cue to put up a boundary.

The outcome is you live a life with a healthy circle of people who support your authentic self and a boundary to keep neglectful people at a healthy distance. This is the safe environment you need, to let go of avoidance of negative emotions so you can fully feel the positive emotions including peace, power, and joy!

Kristin Woodling, a licensed mental health counselor and certified marriage and family therapist, owns Pamper Your Mind, LLC in Satellite Beach. She is devoted to providing a confidential and elite therapeutic experience to professional women seeking healing, clarity, and balanced lifestyle for optimal health.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

Caregivers experience a variety of emotions in relation to their caregiving responsibilities. Many of these are negative emotions. They make us feel bad, sap our energy and lower our self-esteem.

Examples of some of these negative emotions may include:

  • Anger
  • Emptiness
  • Frustration
  • Inadequacy
  • Helplessness
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Overwhelmed
  • Resentment
  • Failure
  • Sadness
  • Jealousy

Have you experienced any of these negative emotions? When or under what circumstances did experience this emotion? Who else is usually involved when you feel this way? When was the last time you felt this way? What could you do to change the circumstances or situations in which you tend to feel this way?

There are many reasons we experience negative emotions. Caregivers usually have them because of:

  • Unmet needs
  • Poor coping skills
  • Major difficulties associated with their caregiving circumstance
  • “Hooks” other people use to manipulate them

Use the following strategies to prevent or get rid of the negative emotions you may be feeling.

As a society, we don’t talk much about emotions. Conversations tend to focus more on what we’re doing or what we’re thinking. In fact, most people find it easier to start sentences with, “I think. ” instead of “I feel. ” simply because it feels less awkward.

Most of us are never educated about feelings. Instead, we’re supposed to learn socially acceptable ways to deal with feelings by watching the people around us. Those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by emotionally superb role models likely missed out on an important emotional concept or two.

There are certainly cultural differences when it comes to emotions. Social norms differ over what is considered acceptable in terms of talking about feelings and dealing with them. In fact, most languages have words for certain emotions that don’t have equivalent translations. ( Popular Science recently shared 21 emotions for which there are no English equivalents).

English: Basic emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no wonder there is a lot of confusion about emotions. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about emotions:

1. I should feel differently. So often people will say things like, “I know I shouldn’t be so upset over something so little,” or, “I really should be happier than I am.” There aren’t any rules about emotions and your emotional reaction isn’t wrong. Rather than waste energy beating yourself up over how you feel, accept that you feel that particular emotion right now and that you have choices in how you react to that emotion.

2. I can’t control how I feel. Even though your emotions aren’t wrong, that doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck in a particular mood. You can certainly choose to make changes that will influence the way you feel. If you want to change the way you feel, choose to change the way you think and behave .

3. Venting will make me feel better. A widely held misconception is that if you’re not talking to everyone about your feelings, you must be “suppressing your emotions” or “stuffing your feelings.” But research shows that the opposite is quite true, at least when it comes to anger. Punching a pillow or calling everyone you know to tell them how bad your day was will only increase your arousal and won’t make you feel better.

4. Trying to control my emotions is synonymous with behaving like a robot. Sometimes people think that regulating their emotions means trying to act as if they don’t have feelings. But, that’s not the case. A realistic view of emotions shows that we’re capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions but we don’t have to be controlled by those emotions. After a hard day, choosing to do something to help you feel better – as opposed to staying in a bad mood – is a healthy skill.

5. Other people have the power to make me feel certain emotions. So often, people will say things like, “My boss makes me so mad,” or, “My co-worker makes me feel so bad about myself.” But in reality, no one can make you feel anything. Other people may influence how you feel, but you are the only one in charge of your emotions.

6. I can’t handle uncomfortable emotions. When people doubt their ability to tolerate certain emotions, it leads to avoidance. Someone who experiences frequent bouts of anxiety may pass up opportunities to be promoted. A person who feels uncomfortable with confrontation may avoid meeting with a co-worker to problem-solve a situation. Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions directly builds confidence. When you don’t allow your emotions to rule your behavior, you’ll learn you can handle a lot more than you imagined.

7. Negative emotions are bad. It’s easy to categorize emotions as being good or bad, but feelings in themselves aren’t positive or negative. It’s what we choose to do with those emotions that can make the difference. Anger, for example, often gets a bad rap. While some people make horrible choices when they’re mad, other people choose to use anger in a proactive manner. Many of the world’s positive changes wouldn’t have ever occurred if activists hadn’t gotten angry about injustices they witnessed.

8. Showing emotion is a sign of weakness. While it’s a healthy social skill to be able to behave professionally even when you’re not feeling at the top of your game, letting your guard down at socially appropriate times isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, being aware of your emotions and making a conscious decision to share those emotions with others – when it’s socially appropriate to do so- can be a sign of strength.

Developing an awareness and understanding of your emotions can be complicated when you’re not used to thinking about how you feel. Just like most skills in life, with practice you’re ability to recognize, tolerate and regulate your emotions will improve. Increased emotional self-awareness is key to achieving success in your personal and professional life .

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.

According to a new book, the key is “emotional agility”: being less rigid and more flexible with our thoughts and feelings.

  • By Kira M. Newman
  • January 18, 2017

We’ve all been there: A strong emotion like anger or fear sucks us in and suddenly we can’t seem to control the things we say or do, hurting ourselves and those around us.

“We act like wind-up toys, repeatedly bumping into the same walls, never realizing there may be an open door just to our left or our right,” writes Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.

Negative emotions can be clues to our deepest values, and the ways in which we may have gotten off track.

Her book is a guide to life’s trickiest emotions: not how to avoid them but how to learn to move through them. If we have the courage to do this, she argues, we will cultivate deeper relationships and a more authentic life.

4 Commons Ways We Get Stuck

When we get stuck—i.e., held in thrall of a particularly nasty feeling—there are a few common culprits, writes David.

  • Monkey mind: We’ve spiraled off into a cascade of regret about the past, worry about the future, or judgments about ourselves.
  • Old ideas: We’re repeating old thoughts and behaviors that no longer fit the current reality, like “I always choke in important situations” or “I’m not good enough for him.”
  • Righteousness: Our need to be right leads to conflict with others, rather than forgiveness and understanding.
  • Blaming thoughts for behaviors: Because we think certain things—“I always choke”—we feel compelled to take certain actions, like avoiding public speaking. We fail to recognize that we could choose a different path.

The way we cope with negative feelings often serves to keep us stuck. Some of us bottle our emotions, trying to ignore them and soldier on. In the process, we end up stressing out the people around us and may find those feelings “leaking out” in other ways: anger at a cashier, for example, when our real anger is directed toward someone else.

In contrast to bottlers, brooders rehash feelings over and over in their heads, not generating productive insights but simply reliving the pain. Brooders can become very self-focused, writes David, and they may start to judge and blame themselves for their feelings.

Finally, sometimes inspired by the self-help industry, many of us respond to negative emotions by forcing ourselves to be positive. “This isn’t such a big deal,” we might tell ourselves, or “I should feel grateful for everything I have.” Yet trying to reason away our negative emotions and feel good all the time can be detrimental to our mental health.

David calls these unhealthy responses being “hooked.” The feelings have snagged us, in one way or another: We aren’t aware of them yet they’re influencing our behavior; we’re completely drowning in them; or we’re constantly fighting them off in order to stay chipper.

How to Cultivate Emotional Agility

To get unhooked, we first have to acknowledge the hook—in other words, to be mindful and accepting of our feelings, David explains. In one study, for example, researchers found that smokers were more successful at quitting after participating in a program based on accepting, observing, and detaching from their cravings.
Other research shows that people with alexithymia—who cannot put their feelings into words—have poorer mental health, less satisfying jobs and relationships, and more aches and pains. And naming your feelings isn’t as simple as saying “I’m stressed,” explains David; often, underlying such generic feelings are more uncomfortable emotions like frustration or hopelessness.

The point of identifying these feelings is not to beat ourselves up, though. In fact, if we want to make improvements in the future, the best approach is self-compassion. With the clarity it brings, we can try to understand what the feelings are telling us—what we can learn about our desires, boundaries, or needs.

David recounts a time when she was traveling for work and, alone in a fancy hotel room, began to feel guilty for leaving her family. Rather than getting hooked by the guilt and smothering her feelings with five-star room service, she instead chose to pause and learn from it: to remind herself how much she values time with her loved ones, and to recommit to prioritizing them.

In one coaching exercise, David invites a group of participants to write their deepest insecurities on a name tag—“I’m boring” or “I’m unlovable”—and introduce themselves to everyone else, as if at a party. Somehow, putting our feelings into words gives them less power.

One way to get some perspective on a difficult feeling is to use language—to say, “I’m having the thought that…I’m a bad mother” or “I’m having the emotion of…shame.” In one coaching exercise, David invites a group of participants to write their deepest insecurities on a name tag—“I’m boring” or “I’m unlovable”—and introduce themselves to everyone else, as if at a party. Somehow, putting our feelings into words gives them less power.

Looking at our predicament from another person’s perspective is another way to gain some distance. For example, what would my friends think? They probably wouldn’t say you’re an incompetent employee and a poor excuse for a spouse. Eventually, by sitting with our feelings in this way, they may pass—along with the fatalistic stories we’ve concocted in our heads. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever return, but we’ll be more prepared if they do.

Emotional agility sets us up to thrive in life, David argues. Negative emotions can be clues to our deepest values, and the ways in which we may have gotten off track. Loneliness reminds us to make time for our relationships, for example, and anxiety might mean we’ve taken on too many projects. Once we’ve identified these inconsistencies, we can make small course corrections to point us in the right direction: setting up a weekly dinner with friends, for example, or deciding to say no to commitments in the near future.

If you’re familiar with mindfulness research, parts of David’s book will probably sound familiar. But where she adds value is in the step-by-step explanation of what to do in those mindless moments of pain that we all know too well. Eventually, we can honor our feelings but not be ruled by them.

“[Emotional agility] is about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system,” writes David. “[It’s] about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention.”

Riding Out Intense Emotions

Unfortunately, we can’t just get rid of certain emotions because they all serve an important purpose in our lives – even the difficult ones like a nxiety, sadness, grief, anger, shame, and guilt.

Emotions give us information . S adness may tell us that we’ re lonely or that we’re grieving a loss . Anger may be a clue that we are being treated unfairly or that others are not meeting our expectations. Guilt often result s from the belief that we ha ve done something wrong or hurt someone .

Emotions also move us to act or react in different ways . F rustration may drive us to problem-solve or try to change a situation for the better . Sadness may encourage us to seek comfort from others , or create time to reflect . Guilt may motivate us to m ake amends or keep us from repeating the same behaviour in the future.

When emotions are intense and overwhelming, we naturally want to get rid of them or block them out. N ot feeling or facing our emotions ; however, often makes things worse and catches up to us eventually. Ultimately , we want to be able to deal with what is causing our emotions and express them in a healthy way . But s ometimes we find ourselves confronted by emotions that feel too intense or overwhelming to deal with in the moment. Or, we can find ourselves in situations we cannot immediately change. There are strategies that can help us “ ride out ” or “dial down” difficult and intense emotions until we are either less emotional ly reactive or we are in a time or place where we are able to reflect on our situation or deal with what may be causing our emotions .

Check out these helpful strategies for “riding out” intense emotions.

Helpful Things to Tell Y ourself

We may tell ourselves that we can’t handl e intense feelings, or that our feelings aren’t real or valid. However, this type of self-talk isn’t true and doesn’t help our situation. It’s better to accept your feelings without judgment, and make a plan to get through them. Check out these helpful thoughts.

Helpful Thoughts for “In the Moment”

Help ful Thoughts for Anytime

Take note of which statements above you think might be helpful to you . Write them down or put them in your phone to help you remember them when you need them .

Helpful Things T o D o

S ometimes , our emotions can be overwhelming and lead to unproductive or unhealthy ways of coping. But there are strategies that can help us “ ride out ” or “dial down” these difficult emotions in a healthy way. Here are some strategies that may help you express or cope better with difficult emotions .

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

Humans have a wide spectrum of emotion, but we don’t always enjoy the things we feel. Anxiety, shame, jealousy, and sadness aren’t feelings we aspire to experience, so they have a pretty negative reputation for making us feel bad.

Worries are at the forefront and anxieties are heightened right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but we don’t always have the feelings that threaten to overwhelm us.

“We often feel like we’re going to get overwhelmed by our negative emotions,” psychologist Perpetua Neo told Insider. “People with borderline personality disorder do have a hard time regulating their emotions, but for most of us, we can.”

But the problem is we don’t realise we can regulate ourselves, she said, and if our panic, anxiety or whatever feeling it is spikes all the way up, we can easily fall into catastrophe mode — letting our minds jump to the worst possible conclusions.

People often try to be over-rational, Neo added, because they don’t want to allow their emotions to take over and be seen as someone who over-reacts or cries all the time.

“It’s this whole vicious cycle that happens when we oppress our feelings,” she said. “The perspective shift would be working out how your emotions can play together with your rationality. That actually works much better.”

Neo calls it playing a symphony. You’re not going to enjoy every emotion, but it is possible to learn to reframe your mind and work with your feelings, rather than against them.

Here are five emotions we perceive as negative, and how we can actually learn to use them for good.

1. Anger

If you’re angry, it’s often because you’re feeling a sense of injustice, said Neo. Younger people tend to have a lot of anger, and it’s sometimes let out in protests and marches. But as you grow older, you may find you don’t have as much of a drive to be outraged as you used to.

You’ll still get mad, though, and it’s just as important to channel it properly.

“Anger is a really great fuel for creating a sense of justice,” said Neo. “So ask yourself, what is the injustice in this? If it’s a real injustice what can I do about it?”

We all have our little demons and it’s always worth understanding what the food source of this demon is, so you can starve it, she said.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety evolved in humans to teach us when to retreat from a situation where we’re facing conflict. It used to be the body’s natural reaction — the fight or flight response — warning us we’re in danger, but the reaction has carried into modern life even though we don’t have so many predators to face.

“Our bodies are not adapted to modern sources of anxiety,” said Neo. “And we also tend to be super cerebral, so what happens is our brains just go into overdrive with anxiety. You have to ask yourself, what is this inviting me to change in my life? What is it in me that I need to walk away from, that is causing me to be distressed and scared?”

Often it’s the thing you’re obsessing about a lot, like a bad relationship. Essentially, it’s your body telling you to get out of that situation.

“When you have your panic attacks, what is the first thought that comes into your head?” said Neo. “Because this thought is what your body is trying to tell you — I am not safe, I am trapped — it mirrors what’s happening.”

Anxiety, as long as it’s not a disorder that takes over your whole life, can shine a light on what you need to change.

3. Jealousy

Jealousy is a complicated emotion, but it’s basically an invitation to ask ourselves what you’re unhappy about in a situation, Neo said.

“We tend to get more jealous of people who are more similar to us,” she said. “So we are more jealous of, say, your friend you went to school with than Bill Gates, because maybe you’re from the same background and you think you’re supposed to be where they are.”

Feeling jealous doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but it can lead to resentment. The best way to reframe jealousy is through honesty — asking yourself “how can I get to where I want to be?”

“If I’m jealous of my friend based on her social media feed, can I be really objective without wishing him or her bad?” said Neo. “Maybe there are pieces of his or her life that aren’t perfect too, and that’s ok.”

4. Guilt

Guilt is sometimes strongly linked to empathy. It’s the feeling of tension for doing something, or failing to do something, so often it’s all about your obligations.

“If you have not done something, ask yourself, what is this guilt telling me about what I need to change in my life?” Neo said. “Or maybe it’s telling you you do too much. How can you reframe this guilt?”

If you’re feeling guilty all the time, every day, ask yourself why. It’s simply impossible to help everyone, so it shouldn’t fall on your shoulders every time.

“It’s about asking yourself, where am I feeling over obliged, where does this come from?” said Neo. “Often it’s linked to where you’re not taking care of yourself. So ask yourself, how can I have more empathy for myself?”

5. Shame

Misplaced shame is dangerous. In some cases, intense shame can create dark personality types like narcissists, because they drive their self-hatred inwards and put on a grandiose front to protect themselves.

Shame is all about your identity and feeling tension about yourself and who you are.

“Often, it tends to be super magnified in our heads and we feel bad for essentially our identity,” said Neo. “So when we feel shame, it’s an invitation to examine our lives and the way we see ourselves.”

Shame can help us step back and see the different ways we’re needlessly attacking ourselves. For instance, our mental health struggles, or our relationship problems.

Sometimes, examining the shame can make us realise it’s not our own voice that’s criticizing us, but someone from the past.

“Shame is also an invitation for forgiveness, because a lot of the time we never forgive ourselves,” Neo said. “Like, when I was seven years old I did this thing and I’m still ashamed of myself. And it’s not a really good thing to be holding on to by the time you are 35. That’s 28 years. It’s really tiring.”

Don’t explain your emotions away

The worst thing you can do with a negative emotion is push it down. Neo said this will just make it come out fiercer and stronger later on.

If you keep your feelings down and they explode, it’s only going to make you more afraid of them.

“You don’t want to try to be over-rational, or what I call cognitive photoshopping your negative emotions,” Neo said. “Because that’s actually a recipe for disaster.”

It's so important for parents to help their child learn how to cope with their feelings. Learn how parents are their child's guide in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges, starting on day one.

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Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that babies were pretty much blobs who didn’t think or feel much before they could speak in words around age 2. The idea that a 6-month-old could feel fear or anger, no less sadness and grief, was preposterous. But thanks to an explosion in research on infancy in the last 30 years, we now know that babies and toddlers are deeply feeling beings. Starting in the earliest months of life, well before they can use words to express themselves, babies have the capacity to experience peaks of joy, excitement, and elation. They also feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness, and anger—emotions that many adults understandably still find it hard to believe, or accept, that very young children can experience. Research has also shown that children’s ability to effectively manage their full range of emotions, also known as self-regulation—is one of the most important factors for success in school, work, and relationships into the long-term.

So a critical first step in helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is not to fear the feelings, but embrace them—all of them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. When you help your child understand her feelings, she is better equipped to manage them effectively.

One major obstacle in doing this that I see quite often in my work with parents is that they are operating under the false assumption that having a happy child means he needs to be happy all the time (something I still have to keep reminding myself despite the fact that my children are in their 20s!) Muscling through difficult experiences, mastering struggles, coping with sadness and grief, builds strength and resilience, and is ultimately what brings children a sense of contentedness and well-being.

What can parents do?

Starting in the earliest months, tune in to babies’ cues—their sounds, facial expressions, and gestures—and respond sensitively, which lets babies know their feelings are recognized and important. This might mean stopping a tickling game with a 4-month-old when she arches her back and looks away, signaling she needs a break. Or taking a 9-month-old to the window to wave good-bye to Mom when she is sad to see her leave for work.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

Label and help toddlers cope with feelings.

Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming these feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them, and it communicates to children that these feelings are normal. This might mean acknowledging an 18-month-old’s anger at having to leave the playground as you help him into the car seat; validating a 2-year-old’s frustration at his block tower falling again and again; or empathizing with a 3-year-old’s sadness that his grandparents are leaving after a long visit.

Don’t fear the feelings.

Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. So listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time.

Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings.

This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day. But feelings don’t go away, they need to be expressed one way or another. Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him. Let’s go to the window to wave good-bye and make a plan to see him again soon. When feelings are minimized or ignored, they often get expressed through aggressive words and actions, or by turning them inward, which can ultimately make children anxious or depressed.

Teach tools for coping.

If your 18-month-old is angry that iPad time is over, guide her to stamp her feet as hard as she can or to draw how angry she is with a red crayon. Help a 2-year-old who is frustrated at not being able to get the ball into the basket brainstorm other ways to solve the problem. Take a 3-year-old who is fearful about starting a new school to visit the classroom beforehand—meet the teachers and play on the playground—so that the unfamiliar can become familiar.

The fact is that our children’s emotional reactions trigger our own emotional reactions, which can lead to a knee-jerk need to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our child distress. But it’s important that we manage our own feelings and avoid this temptation, as it creates a missed opportunity to help children learn strong coping skills. Instead, see these experiences as teachable moments to help your child learn to name and manage the emotions—positive and negative—that add depth and color to our lives. Show your child that a full, rich life means experiencing both the ups and the downs. Feelings are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. You are your child’s guide in in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges. And it starts on day one.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

Emotions get a lot of flack in the business world. It is advised to keep feelings out of business–that being emotional in the office or in negotiations can be destructive and dangerous.

As a result, some people avoid expressing emotions altogether. Emotions that are suppressed are emotions that are not acknowledged or acted on–and although emotional suppression doesn’t sound severely damaging, doing so can actually pose a health risk.

Here is what happens when you don’t allow yourself to fully feel your emotions.

1. Mental exhaustion.

Suppressing an emotion can involve suppressing the memory of something that has made you uncomfortable. However, you cannot actually forget a memory on purpose, so in order to avoid thinking about something you do not want to remember, your mind will work overtime.

2. Stomach problems.

According to research from Harvard Medical School, the stress that comes from unacknowledged emotions can lead to slow digestion, gas, bloating, vomiting, and ulcers.

3. Headaches and migraines.

In response to emotional stress, the muscles in your forehead and brow tighten, leading to reduced blood flow to the brain resulting in headaches.

4. Stronger negative emotions.

When you don’t acknowledge your feelings, you are allowing these emotions to become stronger, according to a study from the University of Texas. Emotional outbursts are “your body’s way of releasing that pent-up emotion,” says clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt.

5. Weight gain.

Sometimes we use eating as a way to make us feel better during times of stress. If you aren’t properly expressing how you feel, you will find yourself in a state of stress that doesn’t go away. Food can be a temporary band aid for a real problem, and when we eat too much, weight gain is very likely.

6. Difficulty experiencing the positive things in life.

When you try to experience less sadness and anger, you are limiting the range of emotions you can experience. This includes positive feelings like joy and happiness. You can’t have the positive without riding out the negative.

7. Increased cancer risk.

In 2013, one study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester reported that those who bottled up their emotions increased their risk of being diagnosed with cancer by 70 percent. That’s a great reason alone to start feeling and showing your emotions.

8. Shorter lifespan.

The same Harvard School of Public Health study also showed that emotional suppression “increases the chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30 percent.”

No one likes to feel negative feelings like humiliation, sadness, or anger. But ignoring and avoiding how you feel can make things worse. Once you stop putting off dealing with or acknowledging how you truly feel, you will find yourself living a less stressful and healthier life.

You might have everything going right for you, but there are definitely going to be times when adversity strikes without a warning. No, we aren’t scaring you—that’s the reality. There will be instances in life when you will experience stress and anxiety, and we want to tell you that it is perfectly normal.

Of course, the magnitude of the experiences will vary from person to person, but what’s important to note is that one can’t escape negative emotions. In fact, there will also be times when these emotions manifest in us for no apparent reason.

Like we said, it isn’t possible to always have positive emotions, but you certainly can manage negative emotions better to stay happier. What that means is if something negative comes at you, it doesn’t mean you have to throw up your hands in despair and panic. Instead, we bring in tools to help manage the situation better.

Now that you know what we’re talking about, let’s first tell you what happens when you suppress your negative emotions. Well, if you’re raising your eyebrows, let us tell you that this is really common.

Do not suppress negative emotions

As we mentioned, most people deal with negative emotions by not dealing with it. That means they either avoid it or suppress their emotions, and that’s certainly not the right approach. Haven’t we all come across people who seem stressed and depressed, but they can’t see it in themselves? You might have tried to talk to them about it, but they do not open up. Instead, they act as if they have no problem at all. It could be that you’ve done the same.

Suppressing your feeling will make the things worse. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

We already know ignoring our problems won’t make them disappear, and neither will suppressing our emotions, at least in the long run. Because at the end of the day, even if you try and avoid it, you will have to face it. Plus, what really happens is that we continually worry that our attempts to suppress will fail.

Daniel Wegner and his colleagues (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987 ) directly tested whether people would be able to effectively suppress a simple thought. They asked participants in a study to not think about a white bear for five minutes, and to ring a bell in case they did. The participants were unable to suppress the thought as instructed—the white bear kept appearing in their minds, even when they were instructed to avoid thinking about it.

Moreover, we must also not try to distract ourselves from negative emotions. You might think watching your favourite show or doing something else might help, but it will only in the short-term. Sometimes, it can also lead to substance abuse and binge eating in the long run, which is why it is important to address problems right there.

Best strategies to cope with negative emotions and be happier

Contrary to general perception, you can’t be happy at all times. A false sense of positivity is also detrimental to health, where we shame ourselves for experiencing these natural states and try to deny them or force ourselves to pretend that we feel positive, when we don’t. Instead, it is better to embrace our emotions, while engaging in activities that help us to cope better.

According to well-renowned psychologist, Ceri Sims, there’s a strategy that works well in this case. It is called TEARS of HOPE. Here’s what it means:

TEARS

T – Teach and learn . What this means is to be open and self-aware, and understand your mind and body better. You must understand how they respond to stress, so that when you encounter any such situation, you are able to interpret the signals your body is sending.

E – Express and enable sensory and embodied experiences . This is all about being curious, and open to experiences that come your way, be it positive or negative.

There is nothing wrong in expressing what you feel! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

A – Accept and befriend. It is important to focus on increasing your own self-compassion and tolerance for frustration.

R – Re-appraise and re-frame . This is so that you can develop a perspective to view things differently.

S – Social support . This is to be more self-compassionate, while you invest in relationships.

Here’s what HOPE is all about:

H – Hedonic well-being/happiness . According to research, there should be a 3-to-1 ratio of positive vs. negative emotions.

Positive thinking can even make achieving the seemingly impossible, possible. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

O – Observe and attend to things.

P – Physiology and behavioral changes . This is about focusing on self-care and breathing exercises to calm yourself down.

E – Eudaimonia . This means to strive for goals in life and a sense of authenticity.

So ladies, let those negative emotions out, because that’s how it will make you much more happier!

alt=”Geetika Sachdev” width=”” height=”” /> Geetika Sachdev

An independent writer and journalist, Geetika loves sharp and fresh humour, just like her coffee! If not writing, you’ll find her cafe-hopping and raiding the best book stores in town.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

All teams suffer setbacks. What separates resilient teams from the rest is how they respond. Resilient teams come back stronger after failure because leaders and team members lean into the negative emotions that inevitably accompany setbacks and use the energy under those emotions to fuel recovery.

Negative emotion is volatile fuel

Heading into the women’s World Cup in 2011, Canada’s national soccer team was one of the favourites. Two weeks later, they were knocked out of the round robin in a 4-0 defeat to France and headed home without winning a game – finishing dead last.

Team Captain Christine Sinclair talked about feeling “humiliated” – like they had let down the country. And yet just one year later, the same team outperformed at the London Olympics to win Canada’s first ever medal in soccer. “We knew what we were capable of and just because we had one bad tournament it wasn’t going to define us,” said Sinclair. The head coach of the Women’s National Team, John Herdman, spoke about how the team was “an easy group to motivate” because they had just suffered such a crushing defeat.

Negative emotion can be powerful fuel for positive response. It can provide ‘bulletin board material’ that leads to determination, and ultimately harder work and higher standards.

But negative emotion is highly volatile fuel. If not handled correctly, it can trigger a negative feedback loop that leads to the blame game and teams that end up either combusting or just detaching.

Three Jobs for Leaders of Resilient Teams

We’ve observed that leaders of resilient teams are able to trigger the positive feedback loop from negative feedback by doing three things differently than leaders of less resilient teams:

1. Lean into negative emotion

Leaders of resilient teams don’t retreat from negative emotion. They don’t try to rescue people from it and make them feel good. Rather, they use it for its developmental potential.

The psychologist Roberto Assagioli has said, “a psychological truth is that trying to eliminate pain merely strengthens its hold. It is better to uncover its meaning, include it as an essential part of our purpose and embrace its potential to serve us.”

When leaders try to reassure people or make the pain go away, they rob it of its power. It is better to acknowledge the pain and embrace it so that it can be used to fuel growth.

“As painful as it feels now, it will help him.”

So, what does ‘leaning in’ look like? Consider “the shot.” Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple bouncing Game 7 buzzer beater was a moment of euphoria for Toronto. On the other side, however, it was a devastating moment for a young Philadelphia 76ers team featuring 25-year-old star Joel Embiid, who left the court in tears. When asked about the emotional response of Embiid in the post-game press conference, Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown said, “As painful as it feels now, it will help him. It will help shape his career.” Rather than shying away from the pain, comforting Embiid and trying to lessen the sting, Brown leaned into it and helped his young player see it as a growth opportunity – a sign that he needed to work harder.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

2. Frame negative emotion differently

Leaders of resilient teams have a different answer to the question “what is this pain telling us?” than leaders of less resilient teams.

They frame pain as a signal that they aren’t there yet – rather than a sign that they aren’t good enough. As a result of this framing, resilient teams respond to negative emotion with determination. They get committed to the challenges they face by exerting control where it matters: their own effort.

After a lacklustre season heading into Salt Lake City in 2002, the Canadian women’s hockey team held a player’s only meeting where they came up with the acronym WAR, for ‘We Are Responsible.’ As 4-time gold medalist Janya Hefford reports, “there was a lot of the blame game going on”– and the WAR framing helped them redirect attention away from the officiating, their opponents, etc. and towards what they were responsible for. Ultimately, this perspective proved vital in overcoming 8 straight penalties in the Gold-Medal game to triumph.

3. Channel negative emotion

After embracing negative emotion and finding its meaning, teams and their leaders must still channel the emotion into positive outcomes. Our founder, Peter Jensen, will often ask teams who have suffered failure one powerful question: “What are we going to do with the energy under this emotion?”

it’s easy to channel emotion into what Ben Zander has called “the conversation of no possibilities” and allow the dangerous side of negative emotion affect to take over. Channeling negative emotion productively requires individuals on teams to take responsibility for redirecting energy towards growth and hard work.

Negative emotion is fuel for growth

Resilient teams process negative emotion in a way that leads to harder work and higher standards as opposed to detachment or combustion. They do that by leaning into negative emotion rather than retreating, by framing it a little differently and by seeing it with a sense of challenge, control and commitment.

As a leader, your job is to create the conditions that allow negative emotion to be used to its full potential. The next time your team suffers a setback, encourage your team to accept their feelings, find meaning in their failure, and channel their emotions to come back stronger than before.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

During times of change, teenagers can experience a range of emotions that they may not know how to deal with. As parents, we can help them to understand how to manage their feelings of sadness, anger or anxiety when life changes in unexpected ways. When teens understand that these feelings are as normal a part of life as being happy, they are better able to deal with stressful events, such as when a relationship breaks down, or they lose a loved one, a pet or a job.

Why is it important to talk about what’s changed?

Your teenager needs to know that challenging situations might make you feel upset and angry, too, but that you (and they) can handle these strong emotions. Acknowledging and talking about these feelings shows your teen that it’s okay to feel this way.

Negative emotions may not disappear overnight, but talking about things will help your teen to process and accept what’s happened. Teenagers need to be reminded that change is a normal part of life, and that it can help us to develop strengths such as courage, flexibility and resilience. You can also help your teenager feel like they’re not alone and reassure them that this, too, will pass.

Try one of these conversation starters:

  • You’ve had a rough time recently. How are you feeling?
  • It’s hard to go through a break-up/lose someone/etc. How are you feeling about it?
  • I’ve found what’s happened recently super hard and have been feeling weird about it. What about you?

Validate your teen’s feelings

Adults can sometimes be dismissive of young people’s reactions to problems, because their problems don’t seem like such a big deal to us. But try not to ignore or brush off your teen’s moods, as it’s important that they learn how to process these negative emotions. Mood changes when things aren’t going right in their lives are actually a sign of healthy brain activity. They need to feel that you ‘get’ them, and that what’s happening and how they feel about it is valid. There’ll be time to reflect on their reaction together later down the track. Encourage them to talk about what’s going on, rather than simply encouraging them to ‘get over it’.

Help your teen figure out what they can and can’t control

When something unexpected or unwanted happens, it’s easy to get stuck feeling sad, angry or out of control. A helpful way for your teen to cope is to learn how to figure out what they can and can’t control. This will help reassure them that they’re not powerless and give them something positive to focus on.

Work with your teen to break down what’s happened. For example:

  • What we can’t control: losing a loved one; natural disasters; pandemics; how someone has treated us; having a bad day.
  • What we can control: how we treat other people; what activities we do the next day; what goals we have; who we spend time with; how hard we try to do the best we can.

Acceptance of challenging events

Sometimes, it takes a while to accept hard events that we have no control over, but acceptance will help us to move on. The feelings of hurt, anger and frustration may return every now and then. Remind your teen not to be too hard on themselves, because this reaction is normal and to be expected. Teach them to accept those feelings and to acknowledge that today is a bad day. But also remind them that they’ve had good days and they’ll have them again. You can help your teen to accept the changes in their lives by guiding them to identify the positive things that are happening for them.

By accepting what’s not in their control, your teen isn’t giving it a big thumbs-up; they’re just choosing not to see themselves as a ‘victim’ of what’s happened. They’ll then feel more empowered and able to focus on positive things.

Try asking your teenager:

  • Life has been a bit hard for you this week/month. What are some things that have gone well?
  • Let’s talk about another time in your life when things felt really hard. What are some of the things that also happened at that time that made you feel good?

What can your teen do next?

When learning how to cope with change, your teen might need help with developing a response to the changes that have occurred in their life. It might mean a new daily routine, or finding time in their existing schedule for an activity that’s enjoyable or will give them new opportunities for personal development. Talk with your teen about activities they find relaxing and rewarding. This could include exercise, art or music, or getting involved in the community by volunteering.

Look after yourself, too!

You can cope with your teenager’s mood swings and emotions. By staying calm when your child is anxious or upset, you are helping to reduce their stress levels. Remind yourself not to take their stress responses personally.

Don’t forget that your mental and physical health is important, too. The stronger you are, the better able you will be to help your children. Often, the situations that cause anxiety in our children are also difficult for us. Try to:

  • take some time out to maintain your adult friendships
  • commit to your own exercise routine
  • eat well and model healthy eating (and drinking) habits
  • spend time on hobbies, such as reading, arts, sports or volunteering.

By looking after yourself, you’ll also be role modelling to your teen how you deal with change and tough times. With the right support and time, you can both cope with what’s going on.

Why negative emotions aren't that bad (and how to handle them)

For as long as I can remember, I have been on a quest to heal myself. From a very young age I can remember feeling different from my peers. I was always painfully shy and paralyzed with insecurity and fear, which left me in a constant state of self-criticism.

Hardships in my young life, including the suicide of my father, left me with the belief that life was just hard.

Unfortunately, I also thought that it wasn’t supposed to be and that something was wrong with me because I had so much pain in my life. My head swirled with shame wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get over this, or that?”

My solution to the pain I felt was to basically wage war on myself and conquer all of the difficult feelings I experienced.

I truly believed that I just needed to figure out the right formula, accomplishments, and milestones, and then I wouldn’t have these painful feelings and I would finally feel okay in my skin.

Along the way, I hit all of the targets I had identified: I lost weight, I earned degrees, I made money, I did lots of therapy; I created a life for myself where everything looked the way it was supposed to, but I still struggled with fears and insecurity.

This mission I was on to fix myself only added insult to injury, because my primary thought process was that something was seriously wrong with me and if I wanted to be happy, like I thought everyone else was, then I needed to stop having what I had deemed “bad” feelings.

Rather than giving myself a break, I found the path of greatest resistance.

I was in a constant battle with myself, where every time I had an uncomfortable feeling I jumped on myself for feeling that way and immediately set out to change that feeling. I couldn’t distinguish the difference of “I’m having a ‘bad’ feeling,” from “I am bad.”

When we react negatively to our own negative emotions, treating them as enemies to be overcome, eliminated, and defeated, we get into trouble. Our reactions to unhappiness can transform what might just be a brief, passing sadness into a persistent dissatisfaction and overall unhappiness.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions, like shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, are a natural part of the human experience. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad.

However, we can learn how to deal with difficult emotions in a new, healthier way, by practicing acceptance of our emotions, embracing them fully as they are, moment to moment. For me, this has meant creating space in my life for all of the parts of experience, the ups and the downs.

Unfortunately, in Western culture very few of us have been given the tools to tolerate our own difficult feelings, or those of another person. Not only do we want to avoid feeling pain at all costs, we want to prevent the people we care about from feeling their own pain.

Recently I found myself in a situation where I was confronted with a past loss, and although it has been two years since the loss, I found myself emotionally wrecked, as though it had just happened yesterday.

In my sadness, I reached out to a few friends for comfort and was surprised at how difficult it was for them to tolerate my difficult emotions.

In an effort to help, they wanted to battle the sadness and told me things like I was sitting in self-pity and feeling sorry for myself; that I needed to practice more gratitude in that moment.

Again, they weren’t trying to be hurtful; they were just trying to help me stop feeling sad.

Thankfully, I’ve done enough work on this path to know that that was not what I needed. In that moment, I simply needed to allow myself to feel sad.

I knew the feeling wasn’t going to last forever and I had a choice, I could either drag it out by waging war on myself, or I could recognize that, for whatever reason, in that moment, I just felt sad.

Again, our reactions to our difficult emotions can transform what may have been just a brief, passing sadness (as was the case for me in this situation) into persistent dissatisfaction and unhappiness (two decades of my life).

By learning to bear witness to our own pain and responding with kindness and understanding, rather than greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we open ourselves up to genuine healing and a new experience of living; this is self-compassion.

If you’re someone who is used to beating yourself up for feeling sad or lonely, if you hide from the world whenever you make a mistake, or if you endlessly obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake in the first place, self-compassion may seem like an impossible concept. But it is imperative that we embrace this idea if we are to truly live freely.

When we fight against emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them.

The happiness we long for in relationships seems to elude us. Satisfaction at work lies just beyond our reach. We drag ourselves through the day, arguing with our physical aches and pains.

Usually we have no idea how many of these daily struggles lie rooted in how we relate to the inevitable discomfort of life. The problem is not the sadness itself, but how our minds react to the sadness.

Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves when things go wrong or we feel bad, we can start with self-compassion. This simple, although definitely not easy, shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.

It’s important to remember that embracing your strengths and well-being does not mean ignoring your difficulties. We are measured by our ability to work through our hardships and insecurities, not avoid them.

We are all fighting some sort of battle, and when we accept this truth for ourselves, and others, it becomes a lot easier to say, “I’m struggling right now and that is okay.”

Not being okay all the time is perfectly okay.

About Jennifer Chrisman

Jennifer Chrisman is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, where she specializes in using Mindfulness based approaches to help her clients find more meaning in their life. To learn more, you can check out her website here, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

When others tell you to bury your feelings, it makes you question yourself and the messages your body is trying to send to you. Think about how many times today you’ve attempted to push away a painful feeling by scrolling through social media, bingeing on Netflix, or using food, alcohol, or addictive substances to avoid emotions. In a world filled with distractions and with the invalidating messages we’ve received throughout our lives about emotions, it’s easy to see why so many people are afraid of feeling.

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We’ve been taught to ignore, deny, and avoid our emotions—but this is more than just bad advice. Feeling leads to healing (trite but true). When we push away, suppress, or criticize ourselves for having emotions, it comes with a very high cost: our health.

Avoiding emotions can hijack your health.

We’ve learned how to push discomfort away, but even when we do, it always stays—and grows. A study from the University of Texas found that when we avoid our emotions, we’re actually making them stronger. This can create many maladies in the body and in the mind, causing a myriad of health issues.

When you suppress your emotions, you are confusing and hurting your body in a profound way. Emotions are our body’s way of getting us to take action. On a very primal level, our bodies are trying to keep us safe at all times. Back in the cave man and cave woman days, we learned to listen to our guts because they would save us from attack: run away or get eaten. People today are not necessarily running from wild animals anymore but reacting to an emotion and processing it can still ultimately protect them from dangers, both physical and mental. With the speed of our days, it can be challenging to hear what our bodies are trying to say, but when we ignore those messages, we can still suffer greatly.

Research suggests that suppressing emotions is associated with high rates of heart disease, as well as autoimmune disorders, ulcers, IBS, and gastrointestinal health complications. Whether you are experiencing anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, pushing those feelings aside actually leads to physical stress on your body. Studies show that holding in feelings has a correlation to high cortisol—the hormone released in response to stress—and that cortisol leads to lower immunity and toxic thinking patterns. Over time, untreated or unrecognized stress can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, problems with memory, aggression, anxiety, and depression.

In other words, deciding to bury your feelings, ignore them, internalize them, pretend they didn’t happen, or convince yourself that there is no need to deal with them can literally make you sick from the stress.

And for a cherry on top: People who regularly refuse to deal with their emotions honestly and fully are also likely to have more interpersonal challenges. They are less aware of the signals they are sending to others and are often more reactive and disconnected from themselves, which can lead to feelings of isolation and can interfere with relationships.

We imagine a person who suppresses their emotions might be a totally aloof, perhaps cold, and definitely low-energy person; this is by no means the truth in all scenarios. To the contrary, avoiding a deep understanding of our emotions and what’s causing them can lead us to getting stuck in a fight-or-flight response. Something triggers an emotional response, and suddenly we might start to obsess about all the things that are negative and convince ourselves that the most terrible consequences that could happen definitely will happen. It’s all FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. This triggers your body’s stress response and pushes you into a state of high arousal. That’s when the cortisol spikes, a chemical called norepinephrine is triggered that ups your heart rate and blood pressure, and you can get so keyed up on fear that you don’t take the time to fully understand the thing that pushed you into this response. You don’t take the time to see if you interpreted the stressor correctly.

How can you develop a healthy relationship with your emotions?

As a therapist, I get it: Listening to our emotions is scary and can feel super weird. You’ve spent most of your life avoiding them, so why on earth would you want to feel them all at once? That’s actually unhealthy too. It can create too much confusion. Instead, I suggest to clients to educate themselves on the science of emotions (which you already have done if you read the above) and practice a few of the skills below. The goal is to go slowly—this helps you gain confidence about what you’re feeling and learn to trust your emotions rather than suppress them.