The Power of Positive Psychology

There really is a way to harness sadness and challenges to promote growth.

Posted Dec 01, 2015

by Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Crazy. Psycho. Nuts. Emotional. Unstable. Disturbed. These stigmatizing words often emerge when people talk about psychology and mental health. So it's no surprise that some people wait a long time to reach out for professional help when they need it. People can spend months or years avoiding and distancing themselves from strong emotions out of the fear they will be labeled crazy, broken, or weak. They may even apply these labels to themselves.

Dubova/Shutterstock
Source: Dubova/Shutterstock

That's one reason for the positive psychology movement. The basis of this powerful, alternative way of viewing mental health is that strong emotions and thoughts are not just indicators that something is wrong. Instead, they can be signals and catalysts for healthy development and growth in the face of significant pain, loss, and difficulty. 

When we view challenging times as opportunities for growth and change, it can seem easier to take the steps necessary to make improvements with or without professional help. Here are a few ways to harness difficult emotions and thoughts for psychological growth and development:

1. See sadness as a tool. 

Early in life, most of us learned to push away or avoid sad feelings. We learned they meant we were weak or that it was just bad to feel this way. However, sadness can be the emotional glue essential for holding our relationships together. Expressing sadness releases pain and stress, draws in others who want to help you, and gives you a basis to empathize with the people you care about.

Tuning into sadness is often quite painful. But when you face that pain, you can start to look for the areas of unmet needs in your life and relationships. For example, when your significant other says something that hurts you, or when you are simply disappointed about having to miss dinner or bedtime with your children, you have the opportunity to listen to your sadness and make sense of it. This will usually relieve some of your pain—and give you a chance to share your pain with supportive people in your life, which can also make you feel better and help you make change.

2. Embrace strong feelings.

Strong negative feelings are part of being human. Problems arise when we rigidly try to control or avoid these feelings. A helpful way of coping with strong negative feelings is to embrace them for what they are—tweets from your mind and body intended to update, inform, and keep you safe. You can set yourself up for growth in your emotional awareness and resilience to stress and pain by asking yourself, "What am I feeling right now and why does it make sense?" rather than, “Why is this happening and what can I do to stop it?”

For instance, if you are intensely dreading a work presentation, trying to avoid your anxiety will likely reduce your confidence and increase your fear. Instead, try to accept your anxiety as a signal that you are probably nervous about public speaking—just like many other people. Acknowledging that fear helps you dial down the intensity of your anxiety and stress, increasing your confidence and making the presentation much easier.

3. Catch yourself coping well. 

We all have moments of painful awareness that we didn't need to yell at a loved one or binge on junk food in response to anger or stress. But we tend to ignore moments in which we responded to difficult emotions and experiences as a capable, compassionate human being. While there may always be needless arguments and empty ice-cream pints, looking closer will also reveal plenty of moments in which you can be proud of the way you handled stress and challenging emotions.

Pay attention to those moments in which you were really honest with yourself about how you were feeling and didn't turn to emotional eating. Or the times you mustered the courage to reach out to others for support rather than snapping at someone you love. It can even be as simple as noticing all the little "feel better" moments you created by setting boundaries on your time so you could care for yourself—whether that means taking a spin class, sprawling on the couch to watch Netflix, or just enjoying a long shower. The more often you can recognize when you are handling difficult feelings better than you have in the past, the more likely you will feel confident and effective handling challenging moments in the future.

Thoughts and emotions are powerful barometers of our mental health, and positive psychology offers a way to make sense of our relationships and the events in our lives. By doing so, we can get to know ourselves better and feel more comfortable and confident. We can also determine if professional support is necessary to help us manage powerful emotions or disorders. And when we accept that emotions are nothing to be afraid of, and that mental health is something worth seeking, it becomes that much easier to ask for help.