We are continually bombarded with messages from the media and self-help gurus that we are in charge of our own happiness. All we need to do is buy this product or follow that secret formula and we can get rid of anxiety and negative emotion for good. If getting rid of negative emotions is so easy, why is it that more than 21 million children and adults get diagnosed with depression each year and that depression is the leading cause of disability for adults age 15-44? Why is it that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder? The truth is that we can’t just get rid of negative emotions when we feel like it. They are something we will have to cope with for the rest of our lives.
When our prehistoric ancestors heard the footsteps of a stalking predator, they got a surge of adrenaline that fired up their muscles, used this to run away as fast as they could, and lived to tell the tale and have babies, while those who didn’t were killed. Through the process of evolution, our brains became hard-wired to be on the lookout for threat and mobilize our bodies to deal with a potential predator by fighting or running away. Even today, fear and pain are powerful learning mechanisms that stop most of us from touching hot stoves, running into traffic, swimming in shark-infested waters, speculating wildly on the stock market, or venturing into crime-ridden neighborhoods alone at night.
So, indeed, negative emotions are functional in a basic, survival-oriented way. And, we still need them in our modern world where there are natural disasters, wars, and human predators. This may be why expert Gavin De Becker’s book The Gift of Fear continues to grace the Amazon bestseller list, more than 10 years after it was first written. So what is the problem with negative emotions?
Why are negative emotions difficult to change?
There are six reasons why negative emotions (like fear or distress) are such a struggle for us:
1. Our brains are wired for survival, not happiness. That is why they keep bringing up negative emotions, past mistakes, and worries about the future. We can get stuck in repetitive cycles of self-criticism, worry, and fear that interfere with our ability to fully experience and react adaptively to what is happening in the present.
2. It doesn’t work to just shove negative emotions down or pretend they don’t exist. Because of the survival wiring of our brains, they will be given high priority and keep popping up again in conscious experience. In fact, some research by Daniel Wegner and colleagues suggests that suppressing thoughts while in a negative mood makes it more likely both the thoughts and the negative mood will reoccur.
3. Our physiological systems can react to mental images and events as if they are happening in the real world. Try thinking about smelling and then biting into a lemon. You will likely feel a change in saliva in your mouth. Now think about putting your hand on a hot stove. Do you feel your heart pounding a bit faster? Thus, when fearful thoughts and worries come into our minds, they may affect our bodies as well. Our hearts may start to race or breathing gets short—we experience physiological symptoms of stress, which, over the long-term, can harm our bodies.
4. Negative thoughts feed on each other. We may begin by worrying about not having enough money. Then we may think, “What if I lose my job?” and then about all the people who won’t help us and the past mistakes we made getting into this financial situation in the first place. Before we know it, allowing ourselves to dwell on a small negative thought has led to a mental mountain of difficulties.
5. Negative emotions, such as fear and shame, may help us to survive as young children, when we can’t leave our families and have few options to change a negative situation. When we become adults, we continue to follow the same scripts and never learn that the rules have changed and we have many more options now. For example, if you were heavily punished as a child for talking back to your parent, you may have a lifelong fear of speaking up and asserting yourself, or you may not realize you have a right to leave relationships in which you are treated disrespectfully.
6. The things we do to avoid or try to cope with feeling negative emotions may be more counterproductive than the emotions themselves. People frequently turn to alcohol, marijuana, or prescription drugs, such as Xanax, to escape anxiety. These substances have negative effects on mood and motivation and addictive properties. Turning to food excessively can lead to overweight or obesity and low self-esteem associated with weight gain. Getting angry and blaming others for our negative emotions can ruin our relationships. Shopping or avoiding opening the bills can lead to mountains of debt.
As humans, with brains hard-wired to experience fear and distress, we face a dilemma. We can’t force negative emotions to leave our brains, yet covering them up can lead to worse problems. And paying too much attention to them can create a downward spiral. What do we do with these essential, yet uncomfortable and troublesome parts of our minds?
The answer is surprisingly simple: We need to make peace with them and, by doing so, take away their power. We can allow negative thoughts and feelings to be there, yet develop an “observing ego” or higher consciousness that directs our attention and behavior towards the goals, values, and activities that are productive and personally meaningful to us. We can strive to live a purposeful and effective life, rather than to be free of negative affect.
In the next post, I will explain how you can begin to take back control of your mind rather than letting the fears run the show.