• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

What to do with negative emotions

Are you feeling plagued by chronic unpleasant or negative emotions? Does your anxious mind keep you up at night? Do you often wonder what you can do to make these feelings stop? Perhaps you have tried making every change you can think of, yet you still experience a depressed mood most of the time. Sometimes our emotions can lead us to feel overwhelmed and defeated. Or our feelings can cause us to do and say things we are not proud of. But you don’t have to live like this day in and day out! There is hope – and you don’t have to keep existing in this uncomfortable space. Below are 6 strategies that can help you disembark from the emotional roller coaster you are on and begin to feel calm and pleasant in your current circumstances.


Reassess.

First and foremost, we must understand that emotions are neither good nor bad. They are not right or wrong. They just are. Whether it is anger, sadness, guilt, frustration, or anxiety – having an emotion simply means that you are human. Begin to accept your emotions as part of your humanity and refrain from judging the emotions that come up for you. Rather than assigning a label of “good” or “bad” to your emotions, it can be more helpful to think of them as pleasant or unpleasant. Take the feeling of grief, for example. Most people would say that grief is an unpleasant emotion. But it is not a bad emotion. In fact, it would be abnormal if you didn’t feel grief in particularly sad situations. Similarly, grief is not a wrong emotion. It simply means that you cared deeply about something or someone that that is now lost.


Listen.

Once we stop judging our emotions as good or bad, the next task is to begin listening to what those emotions are trying to tell us. Emotions are subjective, internal states that represent a response to our internal and/or external experiences.1Emotions are the body’s way of communicating something to us. For example, if you are experiencing anxiety, that is your body telling you that there is potential danger ahead. If you are about to jump off a cliff, you will feel anxious because your body is sending warning signals that this activity could hurt you. However, when we feel anxiety in our everyday lives, the danger is rarely physical. Sometimes we feel anxious in relationships because we perceive the possibility of being rejected or disappointed. We may feel anxiety at work or school in response to our awareness of the potential for failure or negative evaluation.

While most humans feel a similar range of emotions2, we all feel them in response to different triggers, so it is important to listen to the messages that your emotions might be telling you. Emotions are our guide to ourselves, and if we use them to our advantage, they can help us make sense of our experiences.


Own your experience.

Along the same lines of listening to, rather than judging, our emotions, we must also own the feelings we have. Oftentimes when people experience unpleasant emotions, the knee-jerk reaction is to stifle them in some way. This can come in the form or ignoring, suppressing, or numbing out emotions. Common ways in which people attempt to avoid their emotions include masking them with humor, distracting themselves with shopping, TV, or hobbies, isolating from others, or consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. But when we silence our emotions, we are not being authentic and honest, and we run the risk of missing out on the message our emotions are trying to communicate to us. It is essential that you own your emotions by labeling and accepting whatever it is you are experiencing.

One way to acknowledge your emotions is to keep a journal. Your journal does not have to contain lengthy or profound entries, but it may be something as simple as identifying your emotion and describing what it feels like in your body. If you find that you are lacking words to describe your emotions, check out Dr. Gloria Wilcox’s Feeling Wheel.3 Identifying and tracking your emotions can also help you to listen to what they might be telling  you as you begin to notice patterns emerging over the weeks and months.

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Feeling Wheel by Dr. Gloria Wilcox.3

Soothe.

Although it is psychologically health to accept and listen to our emotions, the things we feel internally can often cause us to behave in unkind ways. For example, it is reasonable that you feel angry during an argument with your partner and it is important to understand what your emotional arousal is telling you about your relationship with him or her. But, if these feelings cause you to lash out, an intervention to regulate your response should be used.  Some practical tips for regulating your response to unpleasant emotions include:


Mindful Breathing

Research has shown that mindfulness practices and the breathing exercises they contain can actually have a physiological effect on your body that calms you down.4There are many patterns of breathing that have been suggested to help calm the mind, but the easiest way to engage in mindful breathing is to take 10 slow, deep breaths in which your out-breath is longer than your in-breath.


Don’t respond right away

No feeling is permanent and whatever intense emotion you are experiencing will eventually subside. Make the conscious decision not write that email or send that text or say those words until your emotional experience has settled down.


Find outlets to help you cope

Increasing your pleasant emotions can help you you’re your more unpleasant emotions at bay. If you are felling particularly emotional, try out various coping mechanisms. This may include exercise, meditation, or proper nutrition; but it can also include integrating life’s simple pleasures such as listening to your favorite song or podcast, picking up your favorite coffee drink on your way to work, going for a walk outside on your lunch break, putting on your most comfortable pair of yoga pants, or treating yourself to your favorite meal or TV show after work.

Reach out for help

When your emotions begin to get in the way of you living the life you desire, it may be time to reach out to a therapist. If you find that your unpleasant emotions are too overwhelming to cope with on your own or you need help making sense of the messages your emotions could be trying to communicate, therapy can help you.


References

[1] Tang, Y.Y., Holze, B.K., and Posner, M.I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience. 16(4) 213-225.

[2] Ekman, Paul. (1992). “Are there basic emotions?” Psychological Review, 99:550 –553

[3] Wilcox, G. The Feeling Wheel. Accessed at: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/503651459225616386

[4] Gross, J. J., Richards, J. M., & John, O. P. (2006). Emotion Regulation in Everyday Life. In D. K. Snyder, J. Simpson, J. N. Hughes(Eds.) Emotion regulation in couples and families: Pathways to dysfunction and health(pp. 13-35). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/11468-001

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