Negative emotions are the ones that make us feel sad, upset, angry or hateful. Left unchecked, they can have disproportionately negative consequences on a person’s life, but when appropriately dealt with they actually make us happier, better at coping and less stressed.
When we don’t acknowledge what we’re feeling and try to suppress it because we think that will make us feel better, our subconscious continues to dwell on the negative and may result in harmful behaviours:
- A 2010 study found that people were more likely to overeat when they suppressed thoughts about food instead of acknowledging them, particularly when attempting to lose weight.
- A 2011 study found that trying to suppress a thought before going to sleep meant that participants had an increased number of dreams associated with it.
- A 2012 study of people with history of exposure to traumatic events and substance abuse found that suppression of unwanted thoughts led to increased likelihood of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. The best predictor of both PTSD and addiction was not the length or intensity of the trauma but the amount of thought suppression the individual engaged in, whilst mindfulness made people less likely to suffer both.
- A 2013 study found that negative thought suppression five minutes before going to sleep causes increased dream distress (nightmares).
Over the years, what these studies have shown are the harmful effects of thought suppression, from merely dreaming more of the unwanted topic, to having nightmares, to post-traumatic stress disorder and to the self-harming behaviours of overeating and addiction. Negative emotions provide indicators to what is going on around us, and are useful warning signs of financial, health or relationship woes that may prompt us to change our behaviours for the better.
So what should I do?
- Acknowledge your emotions – the more powerful the acknowledgement, the greater the effect. So just telling yourself “I feel upset” is a good start, writing it down is even better, and telling someone else that you trust could be best, whether that be a friend or a therapist.
- Understand which emotion you are feeling without trying to change it – try and give the emotion a name such as anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, exhaustion, disappointment…if you can’t name it then make up your own.
- Psychologist Jonathan Adler found that experiencing a mix of emotions has a positive effective on mental well-being for several weeks afterwards, so whilst acknowledging the negative, also try for a hint of positivity, like “I feel sad that this situation is happening but I feel cheerful that I’m trying to resolve it”.
- Practice mindfulness to enable yourself to cope better when faced with negative emotions.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, depression or other mental health difficulties, seek advice from a qualified counsellor, therapist or your doctor – just like many other types of medical issues, there are some things we cannot fix by ourselves.