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Can Embracing Negative Emotions Increase Your Well-Being?

How you deal with bad feelings can impact your mental health in surprising ways.

Many people struggle with negative, even destructive feelings—about themselves, about others; about emotions aroused in their careers or relationships. Trying to stifle negative emotions—or feeling bad about having them to begin with—is pretty common. It causes much distress and struggle; and often brings people into psychotherapy.

The irony, here, is that resisting or trying to push away your “bad” feelings actually intensifies them. Psychological health and well-being both grow from the opposite: Embracing them. Recent research provides empirical evidence for that. In essence, it shows that you can feel better by allowing yourself to feel bad.

In fact, that’s what meditative practices help you learn to do, which accounts for much of the rise in popularity of meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices. Here's why: When you try to deny or stifle any “parts” of yourself—whether undesirable emotions, desires or fears, you become fragmented. But you need a sense of integration; of wholeness inside, to grow your well-being and capacity to handle the ups and downs, the successes and failures; all part of the relentless change and impermanence that characterizes life.

One of the new studies, conducted with 1,300 adults over the course of three experiments, underscored that in its findings. For example, it found people who try to resist negative emotions are more likely to experience psychiatric symptoms later, compared with those who accept such emotions. The latter group—those who showed greater acceptance of their negative feelings and experiences—also showed higher levels of well-being and mental health.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Toronto. According to lead author Iris Mauss, "We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health." But those who tried to avoid negative emotions in response to bad experiences were more likely to experience symptoms, like anxiety and depression, six months later.

Such findings underscore that meditative practices enhance your “muscle” for tolerating the ebb and flow of emotions and preoccupations; rather than clinging or attaching oneself to them, which pulls you in their direction. As that capacity builds, you become more able to stay focused and centered internally, in the face of the rise and fall of emotional turmoil, including needs, fears, frustrations, and longings—all of which are part of the fluctuations of life. Meditative practices and yoga diminish the tendencies toward anxiety and depression—as evidenced by studies of brain activity as well as conscious experience among meditators.

I find it a bit amusing that researchers who find empirical evidence for the benefit of accepting and letting go of negative emotions often sound as though they’ve invented the wheel. It may be news to them, but such knowledge has been around for several millennia in other cultures. Nevertheless, it’s good to find studies that corroborate that, especially for people who are otherwise skeptical or unaware of the importance of practicing acceptance.

For example, the researchers point out, “People who accept (negative) emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully." And, they add, when bad things happen, it may be better to let negative emotions run their course rather than trying to avoid them. As Mauss says, "Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention. And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

Well yes! That’s certainly true, as many people eventually discover, to their lament.

A different study also underscored the link between well-being and letting yourself experience all emotional states—the pleasurable, as well as the unpleasant, undesirable ones—and without judging or chastising yourself. This cross-cultural study involving over 2,000 people from eight countries, described in this summary and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. According to lead researcher Maya Tamir at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that "Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain…it is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable…” And, "All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant."

This study found that—across cultures—people who experienced more of the emotions that they “desired”—i.e. authentic, internal experiences that they acknowledged and accepted—reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. And that was regardless of whether those genuine emotions were pleasant or unpleasant.

Building the clarity and capacity to know how to deal with emotional states grows from acknowledging all of them, whatever their source—past or present circumstances; it doesn’t matter. All are part of who you are as a total, whole being. With that awareness and acceptance, you’re more able to decide how to respond to whatever is aroused—both internally, and in your outward behavior.

Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2017 Douglas LaBier

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