“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” ~ Sigmund Freud
As I reflect on my life as a young girl, I have very vivid memories of often thinking to myself – “What am I worried about today?” I could always seem to conjure up a number of thoughts and ideas and reassure myself that I had lots to worry about. In reality, I had very little to ever worry about, especially compared to some of the real struggles many young people have with dire social circumstances. Having said this, anxiety doesn’t have to be logical or rational – nevertheless, it can significantly impact our quality of life.
Recently, I have started to shift my thinking around anxiety and other negative emotions. We try so hard to avoid them but in fact as the saying goes “what we resist, persists”. According to the Scientific American article Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, “anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.”
As a physician, I certainly recognize negative emotions are not the same as mental illness which may require treatment. Grief reactions also fall into another category. What I am referring to are the common negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger, that vary from person to person but fall within the continuum of the human emotional experience. As it turns out, the best way to handle negative emotions is to face them.
When “dealing” with our emotions, personality matters
Psychology professor Martin Seligman is well known for his work around positive psychology and happiness. In his book, Flourish, he delves more into what well-being truly constitutes. One section that I was really drawn to is as follows:
“In the therapeutic century we’ve just lived through, the therapist’s job was to minimize negative emotion: to dispense drugs or psychological interventions that make people less anxious, angry, or depressed. Today, too, the healer’s job is minimizing anxiety, anger, and sadness. Parents and teachers have taken on the same job, and I worry about this because there is another, more realistic approach to these dysphorias: learning to function well even if you are sad or anxious or angry – in other words, dealing with it.”
He goes on to say that research in the area of personality has uncovered that personality traits are “highly heritable” so a person may be predisposed to sadness or anxiety (* I am nodding in complete agreement). Given the biological influences of a person’s negative emotions, in some cases anxiety, depression, anger can only be improved to a point.
Seligman says that clinical psychology needs to help people ‘deal with it’, where patients of therapists need to be told – “Look, the truth is that many days – no matter how successful we are in therapy – you will wake up feeling blue and thinking life is hopeless. Your job is not only to fight these feelings but also to live heroically: functioning well even when you are very sad.”
Warrior vs worrier
In her TED Talk, Be The Warrior Not The Worrier – Fighting Anxiety & Fear, Angela Ceberano continues this notion. Again, I nodded my head many times as she describes how anxiety has often lead to her sleeping difficulties, where she found herself role-playing about how the future may or may not turn out at 3 a.m. Sound familiar for you too? She affectionately presents the idea of taking on fear as a “warrior” not a “worrier” where she accurately links fear and worry together.
At one point in her talk, Angela presents interesting yet surprising (or really not surprising) data about fear and worry:
- 40% of what we worry about never happens
- 30% are in the past and can’t be changed
- 12% don’t even involve us but rather others
- 10% relate to sickness
- and only 8% of the things we worry about actually happen
Angela has taken on fear head on through fear projects and encourages us to do the same. She has experienced decreased anxiety and increased happiness as a result of facing fears such as starting a You Tube channel (being on camera).
What can I do to help me “deal” with negative emotions?
1) Mindful awareness – It turns out that negative emotions are just thoughts and feelings – nothing more. We know this, but really recognizing when they arise and accepting them, is liberating. Some meditation exercises encourage us to let these thoughts and feelings pass by or float away, acknowledge without fighting them. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explains this perfectly in this short animated video – How Mindfulness Empowers Us.
2) Journaling – Acceptance and lessening the power of our emotions can be found by writing how we are feeling. Last week, we talked about journaling and offered prompts if you want to give it a try.
3) Talk it out – I know from personal experience that just saying “I feel anxious” to my husband Colin lessens the feeling. Patients who are overwhelmed with negative thoughts and feelings often vocalize they feel better just sharing that too.
4) Be grateful for our emotions – Life would be pretty dull if we were never sad, anxious or mad – wouldn’t it? These feelings give us more perspective on the positive emotions such as joy and contentment.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Simon & Schuster: New York.