How to Cope With Negative Emotions
Emotions are a critical part of our lives. Whether positive or negative, our feelings provide shades of meaning and beauty to our experiences. They can also present a significant challenge when we find ourselves stuck in a negative emotional state. How should we handle negative emotions? Should emotions be allowed to run their course, or should they be stuffed away and denied?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the answer is complex. Negative emotions are a deep part of our quintessential struggle as human beings. Ultimately, the answer to coping can be found in holding ourselves accountable for acknowledging and dealing with negative emotions as they occur. By both recognizing how we feel and choosing how we will respond to those feelings, we can foster a level of resilience and insight that is not achievable with coping mechanisms that ignore or indulge emotions.
Recognize that you interpret emotional experiences.
First, it’s important to recognize that how you feel and think about something is not the same as the emotion you experience towards it. On a neurophysiological level, both feelings and thoughts exist as conscious, frontal cortex-driven decisions that provide context and meaning to what we experience around and inside us. Emotions on the other hand are visceral, subcortical, and subconscious experiences that display themselves physically through bodily reactions, such as pupil dilation, skin conductance, heart rate, and facial expressions. While feelings provide consciousness and interpretation of whatever emotion we are experiencing, emotions deliver us with immediate “gut reactions.”
Think back to the first time you got behind the wheel of a car on a busy street as a teenager. Most of us as first-time drivers probably felt some level of subconscious fear as cars rushed past us in the opposite lane. However, whether we interpreted the sharp rise in adrenaline, racing heart rate, and dilated pupils that accompanied this feeling as terrifying and unpleasant or exhilarating and joyful depends entirely on how we thought about this experience. There’s a good chance that the excitement of reaching such an important milestone caused you to interpret this fearful experience as positive. Your thought patterns are capable of attributing a positive or negative context to the exact same emotion. Take a moment to recognize just how powerful that is: Your outlook can transform a negative emotional experience into a positive one.
Recognize negative emotions or feelings as they occur.
Once you become aware of feeling something negative—whether a conscious thought or an emotional reaction—stop and give that emotion your full attention. Don’t attempt to suppress or deny what you feel. Begin by simply identifying and accepting the fact of its existence. Next, explore whether what you are experiencing is reflective of reality. Are the feelings you have toward that emotion appropriate to the context? If not, step back, refuse to be to controlled by reactive feelings, and reset with a rational and constructive expectation for yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, make your expectation for yourself something as small as slowing down your breath.
Realize that what you feel is transient.
Understanding that emotions are transient can work two ways. First, this understanding can bring a degree of comfort. You know that whatever unpleasant feeling you may be suffering is short-lived. Even with frequent negative thoughts, it is rare that a single emotional episode lasts long without interruption or distraction.
However, the transient nature of feelings and emotions also means you have only a brief space of time to learn from them. Remember: Emotions reflect how you are interpreting reality—an interpretation that may or may not be accurate. Because of this, your emotions provide a valuable insight into how you truly think about an issue, even if you haven’t been able to openly acknowledge that truth. For example, say you are experiencing extreme anger and disappointment with yourself following a mistake in the workplace. What does that emotional response tell you about how you interpret success and about the expectations you set for yourself? What does it say about how your work performance defines you? You can learn a lot about yourself by studying your emotional responses. Being able to answer questions about your feelings shows a deep understanding of who you are and what truly motivates you.
When the response passes, investigate your emotions objectively.
Remember that a thought or feeling is not necessarily reality. Take ownership for what you feel by investigating its accuracy when that initial response passes and you once again feel calm and controlled. Ask yourself this series of questions, and only accept honest responses:
- Is this thought or emotion true and accurate? If not, consider what faulty thinking may be causing it.
- Is this thought helpful? Can it build me or others up?
- Should this thought lead me to change myself?
- Does this thought help me to grow?
- How would I see this situation if I looked on it from the outside?
Your emotions are like the lights on your car dashboard. They aren’t good or bad on their own, but they tell you what’s going on under the hood. By learning to appreciate and investigate your feelings and understand the underlying thought patterns, ideas, beliefs, and motivations behind them, you can move away from being controlled by your emotions and learn to both appreciate the value of your responses and know when to speak truth to them.
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