The role of negative emotions

I feel like nowadays we are afraid of negative emotions, or rather we are constantly fed the idea that negative emotions are bad for us and we need to get rid of them. Admittedly we do talk more about our mental health, depression and anxiety especially, but mostly with the goal to get/give advice on how to get out of these states as soon as possible. The internet and social media are filled with advice on how to improve your mental health –  eat healthy, exercise, be positive, practice mindfulness, have friends, find a work-life balance.

However, many people try all these things and still feel depressed, anxious and stressed. Why? Because life if messy and horrible. Everywhere you look there is suffering and it is a world that is difficult to accept. I am not saying that you shouldn’t do all those things for your mental health I mentioned above, you should, but we also need to stop leaving out one crucial component – negative emotions. Negative emotions are (very) unpleasant and it is no wonder that we try to avoid them, distract ourselves with various techniques from feeling them, and try to be positive instead.

Unfortunately, that often doesn’t work. We cannot escape negative emotions, and we shouldn’t. Here are some ways of dealing with negative emotions that I have found helpful on my journey to better mental health.

Negative emotions have a purpose

We think of anxiety as a negative emotion, but in fact it plays an important part in our lives. It tells us when someone or something is unpleasant or it can tell us we are in danger. The same goes for depression, feeling low or sadness – it is a normal response to being hurt by someone, to grieving, to having a tough time at work, etc. Anger is an emotion that we especially try to avoid feeling and expressing, but it is a perfectly acceptable response to injustices in our own lives and the world around us. Without negative emotions we would not be able to experience positive emotions either. If you did not feel sadness how would you know what happiness was?

Try to accept them

Negative emotions are often a normal reaction to the world around us. Instead of trying to fight them, which can be very exhausting, it might be more productive to learn to accept them. Accept that at this given moment this is how you feel, but also be aware that this is not going to last forever.

Learn from your emotions

As I said, negative emotions have a purpose, so try and explore what their purpose is for you at a given moment. Is there something they are trying to tell you? Is there something to learn from them?

When I was younger I used to get severely depressed and spend days (sometimes weeks) in bed unable to face the world. As I grew older I came to realise that I usually retreat into bed (depression) when there have been a lot of problems and stress in my life and I feel I can no longer cope. Realising this has allowed me to try and engage with the things I was trying to avoid. Nowadays, my depressed days in bed have boiled down to maybe a day or an afternoon in  bed tops.

Give yourself a break

This brings me to the next (and final) important point. Dealing and engaging with negative emotions can be very tiring and sometimes you need time to recharge. So now, instead of seeing it as depression and feeling guilty, I see my day/afternoon in bed as a reward for engaging with difficult emotions, and as a necessary time to get my strength back.

For those of you who like Pixar cartoons, Inside Out deals with this topic of negative emotions and the role of sadness in our lives brilliantly. Suitable for both children and adults! J

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