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Emotion Regulation

The Benefits of Accepting Negative Thoughts and Emotions

You can control your mental well-being by using emotional regulation strategies.

Key points

  • We can either accept negative feelings as a typical part of life or we can ruminate and self-judge.
  • Better psychological health can result from emotional acceptance.
  • We can learn emotional regulation strategies that allow us to use negative experiences for long-term benefit.
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Imagine that you have just experienced an involuntary break-up with a long-term companion. If you are like most people, your emotional response to the event would trigger feelings of anxiety, frustration, and grief. You could ask yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this treatment?” You could also realize that all relationships end at one time or another and use the new opportunity to broaden your social network and meet new people. Which option would you choose?

How we deal with these experiences can vary a lot among people. Some tend to see these negative thoughts as unacceptable or bad, struggling to change or push them away. Others accept these emotions as a normal part of life. This difference in how we handle our thoughts and feelings can have a big impact on our day-to-day lives and, in the long run, on our overall well-being.

Research suggests that accepting our negative thoughts and feelings tends to lead to better mental health (Ford et al., 2018). It might seem strange at first that accepting these negative experiences could actually reduce the negativity we feel. But the idea is that when we accept our thoughts and feelings without trying to fight them, they tend to fade away more quickly, causing us less distress overall. In psychological terms, not fighting the negative emotion is considered to be “acceptance.”

However, there's still a lot we don't fully understand. We're not sure exactly how this acceptance works or how broad its benefits are. Researchers believe that accepting our thoughts and emotions might help us feel less negative when faced with stressful situations. Stressful events often trigger negative thoughts and feelings, so being able to accept them might help us handle these situations better.

The benefits of acceptance

Studies have shown that people who are more inclined to accept their mental experiences generally tend to have better mental health. This includes fewer symptoms of mood disorders like depression or anxiety (Feldner et al., 2003). Surprisingly, this positive effect of acceptance isn't just seen in clinical settings but also among those who aren't seeking treatment for mental health issues.

However, while we have this idea that accepting our thoughts and feelings is linked to better mental health, we're not entirely sure why this connection exists. To dig deeper, researchers are exploring how acceptance might reduce the negative emotions we experience when we're stressed out. They're looking at whether acceptance can help us feel less sad or anxious when faced with everyday stressors like arguments or car troubles, and even the demise of a long-term relationship.

But there are many questions that still need answers. For example, how widely do these benefits apply across different aspects of our mental health? Do they work the same way for everyone, or are there differences based on factors like gender, ethnicity, or social status? Researchers are also trying to rule out other possible explanations for these benefits. They're looking at whether it's specifically the acceptance of our thoughts and emotions that leads to these positive outcomes, rather than just accepting difficult situations in life.

Improving acceptance

Transforming emotional experience into something positive is a type of “emotional regulation.” Emotional regulation requires changes in the evaluation of an emotion, redirecting attentional focus, and modifying counterproductive behavioral or physiological responses to the emotion (Mauss et al., 2007). Emotional regulation involves consciously altering the appraisal and assessment of the emotion, effectively neutralizing the negative consequences. Pragmatically, regulation of emotion transforms the negative emotion to a positive state (Hoffman, 2015). The alteration does not mean the experience or emotion is forgotten but, instead, changes the perception of the event from a stress inducer to an opportunity for personal growth and beneficial change.

The emotional restructuring is accomplished via positive self-talk, a reappraisal of goals and strategies, and the realization that bad things happen to everyone regardless of our personality, intervention attempts, or the evil specter of “karma.” Taking control means you have the confidence to move forward and learn from having experienced the negative emotion. As Ford and his colleagues indicated, “acceptance represents somewhat of a paradox—it is effective at helping individuals change their emotions, and yet it is done without the intention to change emotions. Acceptance may thus represent a special case of emotion regulation.”

In summary, repeatedly accepting one's negative thoughts and emotions, rather than judging them, may allow individuals to repeatedly experience less negative emotion. Over time, these less-intense emotional experiences appear to accumulate and ultimately foster better psychological health. So far, the research shows a promising link between accepting our thoughts and feelings and having better mental health. But there's still a lot to learn about how and why this connection exists. Understanding this could help us develop better ways to support mental well-being in the future.


Feldner, M. T., Zvolensky, M. J., Eifert, G. H., & Spira, A. P. (2003). Emotional avoidance: An experimental test of individual differences and response suppression using biological challenge. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41(4), 403–411.

Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075–1092.

Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for Learning and Performance. Academic Press.

Mauss, I. B., Bunge, S. A., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Automatic emotion regulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 146–167. 2007.00005.x.

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