Let's be honest; negative emotions are almost always unwanted visitors. When life gets tough, or the future looks bleak, negative emotions quickly follow. Negative emotions take up precious thinking space and can be felt all over the body. Headaches, stomach aches, muscle and joint pain, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath can result from negative emotions.
For many of us, the desire to rid ourselves of negative emotions leads to unhealthy behavior patterns. Avoiding the to-do list, ignoring relationship red flags, and people-pleasing are so common they can become a part of how we describe ourselves. Someone '" struggling with boundaries" may really be avoiding the negative emotions that will accompany potential conflict when they say "no."
Avoidance of negative emotions can contribute to the development of addictions, eating disorders, and other clinical issues. For some, the feeling of negative emotions is so uncomfortable they are willing to repeat dangerous and detrimental behaviors.
If, like death and taxes, negative emotions are an inevitable part of life, can they be a benefit to us? Anyone who has listened to their gut in a questionable situation will already know negative emotions can be extremely helpful. But what about those day-to-day negative emotions? The frustration with traffic, the anxiety before a presentation, and the disappointment when plans fall through can also be important messengers.
Before considering the benefits of negative emotions, it might be helpful to put them in their proper perspective. An emotion consists of a physical response, thoughts, and behaviors. For example, anger may be a racing heart, thoughts of revenge, and an aggressive facial expression. The physical experience of negative emotions is often unpleasant. Nausea, muscle tension, sweating, and elevated heart rate are all immediate experiences when a negative emotion comes upon us.
Science has explored the benefit of reframing those physical responses into beneficial bodily reactions to a stressful experience. In her TED talk "How to make stress your friend," Dr. Kelly McGonigal encourages us to see the body's response to stress as a helpful mechanism to prepare you to meet challenges. Her research found that people who saw the increased heart rate, sweating, and other bodily responses involved in unpleasant situations as beneficial lived longer than those who didn't.
It may take some practice to see anxious feelings as helpful, so in the meantime, try to remember the experience of an emotion is temporary. It is an energetic feeling zipping through the body and will eventually pass.
Once the physical experience is minimized, it's time to consider the message the negative emotion brings with it. When you have an experience that causes negative emotions to bubble up, take a moment to ask, "What is this feeling trying to tell me?"
When you stop to consider the purpose of the emotion, new ways of coping with challenges may reveal themselves. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg; examining negative emotions may lead to considering life changes bringing you into better alignment with your true (or self-actualized) self.
Let's unpack the simple example of feeling frustrated in morning traffic. A groggy morning drive disintegrates into frustration and anxiety. Managing those feelings with distraction or deep breathing is an option, but occasionally consider what the message of these feelings might be. The frustration and anxiety are the results of the circumstances. So the first question is, would these feelings also change if the circumstance were to change?
Before we continue, it is essential to recognize that not every situation that creates negative emotions can be changed. Death, illness, and environmental catastrophe are all situations that may leave us grieving. Grief is a normal consequence of unpleasant circumstances that cannot change. Trying to escape grief may not be a good mental health choice. Any concerns about the grief journey should be discussed with a mental health professional.
Returning to our traffic frustration, your negative emotions could tell you the drive would be more enjoyable if you left earlier or took another route. They may also be telling you a long commute is not how you truly want to spend your time. If changes took the commute away, could hours of happiness and peace be gained?
Negative emotions can guide you to discover what will make you most happy. They let us know when we are not on our path by identifying actions that do not bring joy. The work, relationships, and activities we engage in should elicit more joy than negativity. When they don't, it is time to use the negative emotions to question what needs to change.
Negative emotions should not be feared or avoided; they can be seen as valuable friends who have come to guide you toward a joyful and rewarding life.