Working With Negative Emotions

Working With Negative Emotions

There is a general rule in psychology that what we resist, persists and amplifies. If you try to block a negative emotion, such as anger, fear or sadness, to prevent yourself from feeling it, you will generally find that it gets through that block and increases in intensity and duration.

It is entirely understandable that we would want to avoid negative emotions – they are a form of pain and, as an animal, we are programmed to avoid pain. Unfortunately this can lead to us being afraid of, or disturbed by, our own emotions.

When we try to fight off or avoid negative emotions we tend to become anxious about being anxious, angry about being angry and upset about being upset. In this way, we have doubled the original emotion and find ourselves in an even worse emotional state.

There is no need to be afraid of negative emotions – in themselves they can do us no long term harm. Being upset or anxious is ok. In fact, these emotions are doing a very important job – they are a form of motivation, motivating you to take action so you can be safe now and flourish in the future.

Anger and anxiety, for instance, can help to keep us safe if we are at risk in some way, giving us extra energy, strength and awareness to keep danger at bay. Feeling sad can bring your attention to a loss, an absence or important event in your life, motivating you to give it appropriate attention, take care of yourself and adapt to this new situation. 

Rather than pushing the emotion away, it can help to pay attention to what it is trying to tell you. Listen to whatever it has to say and what it thinks you need to do.

However, this doesn’t mean that our emotions are always right and we should always do what they want. Just because you are angry, it isn’t necessarily the right thing to lash out. If you’re anxious, running away may not be the most helpful thing you can do. Pay attention to your emotions but don’t let them control you.

Accept that your emotions are trying to keep you safe and well and pay attention to their advice but then also use your rational mind to evaluate what they are telling you. Our emotional mind can misread a situation – seeing a threat where there isn’t one, seeing a loss and missing a much bigger gain etc. 

Give the emotion some time and space, allow yourself to feel and hear it but then look for evidence to check that it is correct. How likely is it to be correct? What does the evidence in the real world outside your head tell you? What do others tell you? It may help to use 7/11 breathing to calm yourself down while you do this, so you have more cognitive power to think this through. 

Learning to tell when negative emotions are right and helpful and when they are wrong and unhelpful is a skill that can improve with practice – access support from Student Services if you find it particularly difficult but remember that you can get better at this over time.

Video Resources

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7/11 Breathing: Animation created by Madeleine Tizard and Ole Kristian Dale, BA Animation Students - University of Derby.