One of the most important things for folks who struggle with negative emotions to realize is that they may be caught in a vicious cycle that not only involves their initial negative feelings, but also involves negative feelings about those feelings, which creates a painful feedback loop and drives them toward anxiety or depressive disorders. I share here how that works, focusing on fear and anxiety.
We all know what it is like to be afraid of something. Perhaps it was when we were young and left alone at night or when we rode a roller coaster for the first time or when we had to give our first talk to a large audience--virtually every person has felt strong fear at some point in their lives. It is important to understand what fear is, as it is one of the most basic emotions we have. From an evolutionary viewpoint, the fear response is an absolutely necessary part of our mental system. It is the way we recognize and avoid threats. Fear links deeply to the experience of pain—it makes us anticipate that we might feel pain soon, and it orients us to escape and increase our distance from the feared stimulus.
Anxiety is a close cousin of fear. Where fear is more emotionally raw and “stimulus bound” (i.e., we fear the dark, or flying, or public speaking), anxiety is more “cognitive” (e.g., worrying), future-oriented, and can be diffuse (i.e., we can feel anxious but not really be sure about what). Nevertheless, they go together because at their root evolutionary function, both fear and anxiety are about identifying threats and avoiding them.
Although other animals like dogs can clearly experience both fear and anxiety, we humans have a reflective sense that makes emotions particularly complicated. The reason that it gets complicated is that our reflective self can have thoughts and feelings about our feelings.
Consider, for example, if you have a public speaking fear, which is one of the most common fears there is. So, there you are, the day before the big talk, imagining giving your talk in front of a rather large audience. The anxiety and fear begins to take hold. And then what? Your reflective self remembers how much your anxiety disrupted your last talk and gets frustrated and fearful that the public speaking anxiety will again interfere. So, now you have two problems. You have the fear. And the fear of the fear.
Clinical researchers have found that the fear of fear (or what is technically labeled “anxiety sensitivity” which is the anxious feelings folks have of being anxious or fearful or whatever) to be one of the most robust factors associated with anxiety disorders.
This means that one of the things to keep in mind if you struggle with cycles of negative emotions is understanding what the original fear or negative emotion is and sorting out how you feel about that emotion. For example, is it fear of public speaking or disappoinment about a loss or a shame from a painful critique?
Whatever the original feelings are, it is also crucial to be aware that your reflective self will likely have reactions to your feelings. That is, you might think it is weak to have such feelings or you might think there is something wrong with you or you might just wish they would go away because they suck or you might think other people would think less of you if they knew had such feelings, and on and on. Indeed, the clinician-researcher Leigh McCullough argued that one of the most common themes for folks who have emotional (and relational/identity) problems is that they develop an “affect phobia”—a fear of negative feelings. When folks develop this, they are very vulnerable to vicious negative emotional cycles, because not only is the primary affect system activated in a negative way, but the reflective system is cajoling, blaming, and trying to suppress those feelings. This means the whole system is tied up in knots and the original emotions cannot be processed in a healthy and adaptive way.
The bottom line is that it is often very useful to try to sort out what is going on by separating out what are the primary feelings and then articulating how you are thinking and feeling about those feelings.
Ultimately, many folks can unlearn their negative reactions to their feelings and learn to become more Curious, Accepting, Loving, and Motivated to learn and grow from their initial negative reactions (see here for what a CALM approach to negative feelings looks like).