5 Overarching Principles for Coping With Negative Emotions

Learning how to respond to psychological distress can help you move on.

Posted Feb 13, 2018

Source: stockfour/Shutterstock

Learning how to respond effectively to negative emotions can help you move on from those feelings more quickly. There are lots of specific strategies you can learn for how to do this, but here are some overarching principles:

1. Stopping behaviors that make you feel worse is probably the most important thing you can do.

The nature of emotions is that they're designed to be signaling systems. Signals need to turn on and off in order to be of any use. Emotions work the same way. They're naturally temporary. What typically causes difficult emotions to stick around longer than necessary are behaviors that perpetuate those emotions — causing them to become entrenched and snowball. There are many classic examples, most of them falling into three general categories:

  • Avoiding things that make you anxious will typically make you more anxious about those things. (Think: phobias, eating disorders, and social situations.)

  • Using self-protective "safety" behaviors will tend to make you feel more out of control, rather than more in control. (Think: Only driving with a companion if you fear driving, or getting tipsy before dates if you're nervous about dating.)

  • Indulging in ruminative thoughts tends to entrench those thoughts. (Think: allowing yourself to worry endlessly, or Facebook stalking your ex.)

2. Effective strategies for managing negative emotions are surprisingly simple.

In his new book How to Fix a Broken Heart (and the accompanying TED Talk), my colleague, Dr Guy Winch, offers a straightforward but ingenious strategy for people who are stunting their recovery from heartbreak by idealizing an ex-partner: He recommends they make a list of all their partner's worst qualities and keep it on their phone. 

There's also research showing that doing something as simple as a sudoku can help disrupt ruminative thoughts.

An important cognitive trap when it comes to implementing this principle is that people often jump to the conclusion that simple strategies won't work exactly because they seem too simple.

3. Improving your emotions even a little bit is often enough.

To recover from distress, you don't need to completely eliminate negative emotions or thought intrusions. Just improving them a little bit is often enough for you can carry on with your life. This process of carrying on will help further lift you out of whatever difficulty you're experiencing. 

Why? How? This effect is partly due to the fact that when you get on with your life, you have fewer opportunities to do the behaviors mentioned in #1, above. It's also because when you expose yourself to life, you're going to have a mixture of experiences, so getting on with life will provide some positive emotional experiences to help balance out the negative ones.

4. There is a sweet spot between being excessively fearful of negative emotions versus not taking them seriously enough.

Some people fear that difficult thoughts and emotions are going to lead to them completely losing control. Other people attempt to just ignore their emotions and don't ever actively seek to learn effective skills for coping with their thoughts and feelings. 

Paradoxically, sometimes it's the people who are most intensely fearful of negative emotions who are also the least likely/willing to take simple, effective actions (like the prior examples of trying a sudoku when you're ruminating or making a list of your ex partner's negative traits).

The sweet spot is along the lines of treating your thoughts seriously, but not literally. Don't believe everything you think, but also pay attention to how your thoughts impact you and your behavior.

5. Whatever you do to try to manage your thoughts and emotions will be more effective if it's combined with self-care and self-compassion.

  • Self-care helps us have some emotional reserves available for dealing with psychological stress
  • Self-compassion is simply about acknowledging that emotional pain is a universal human experience, and you're doing your absolute best to cope. If you make mistakes in how you cope with negative emotions, that's something we all do. However, you can look for evidence-based solutions and be willing to give these a try.

Want an update each time I publish a new blog article? Subscribe here.


Winch, G. (2018). How to Fix a Broken Heart (TED Books). New York: Simon & Schuster / TED.

Winch, G. (2017, April). Guy Winch: How to fix a broken heart [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_how_to_fix_a_broken_heart

Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 217-237.