Globally, people turn to social media to escape their realities. While this often provides respite, it instills the notion that we have to avoid any appearance of negative feeling or that we “shouldn’t” experience it. This not only makes us feel agitated with ourselves when we experience the emotion, but it also affects our ability to tolerate and handle any amount of distress / discomfort.
We spoke with Dishaa desai, Psychologist and Extension Associate at Mpower – The center, Mumbai to learn more about dealing with negative emotions and what to unlearn from what we know about them. He began by talking about a case study and explained:
A 27-year-old individual reported feeling frustrated and lonely during the confinement; both expected and human reactions. However, he expressed his guilt because he has “much to be thankful for, he does not have to fight to survive” and felt that his reactions were not valid. Nowadays, in all the places where one looks for a recluse, there are people who encourage one to “be grateful”, “positively manifest what you want and it will happen”, “just good vibes” flooding our screens and minds, inducing immense guilt, frustration and embarrassment at feeling even a hint of negative emotion (toxic positivity, essentially).
And so today, we are taking into account the need for introspection in our mental well-being and understanding why exactly we would want to embrace the universal discomfort caused by negative emotions. There aren’t always sun and rainbows when it comes to our emotions, and that’s perfectly fine. And this is why:
All emotions have a purpose. And no, this is not a cliche phrase.
Biologically speaking, negative emotions can be really healthy for us. They serve as an alert system. Take fear, for example, in dangerous situations, fear sends an alarm through our brain and body to prepare us to face the situation and be alert to changes in the environment around us in the first place. It also ensures that we make less risky decisions that may affect our safety and well-being.
Fortunately, humanity has passed the point of being on the lookout for such primitive threats. But this is the same system that kicks in with threats today (like walking down a dark alley) by making one alert and in a fight or flight mode.
In addition, there are other emotions that can lead to discomfort such as sadness, disappointment or even frustration. While these can be a bit more difficult to process, studies have shown that they also help assess objective reality and ultimately help one learn from one’s mistakes.
For example, if you have experienced rejection of a job you were competing for, you may feel discouraged and frustrated. While it may seem personal, after processing what happened, feeling these emotions would lead you to focus on what you can do to improve in the future – that is, focus on what you can control.
Experiencing and managing these uncomfortable emotions also facilitates tolerance for distress in many crises that may arise and helps build resilience. It equips us with an acute awareness and understanding of our emotions and positive coping mechanisms.
This can only happen when we experience emotions rather than avoid them, as this makes it difficult to develop healthy emotional resilience.
As this pandemic has shown us, it is an immense privilege to be able to get away from negative emotions, which can actually disappear just as easily. There are people around the world who have to face their realities on a daily basis, not just as a result of COVID-19, but because of extreme poverty, living in conflict-ridden areas, struggling with terminal health problems, to name just Some. examples.
It is vitally important not to avoid negative emotions (which is hardly possible) when they arise, but to understand and deal with them.
This brings us to the ‘how’
First, understand that negative emotions are universal, healthy, and essential to our functioning, no matter how uncomfortable the experience may be, and accepting this will make the process less distressing.
The next step on this journey is to become aware of what you are feeling, that is, the physiological and emotional experience from a place of non-judgment understanding. This could be checking with yourself what you might be experiencing rather than being embarrassed about it. For example, the first form of self-talk might appear first by labeling the emotion and then wondering where it might have come from and what led to it compared to critical self-talk that would make you feel terrible for experiencing it in the first place.
If there is physiological discomfort, we can deal with it in the way that works for you. This could be through grounding, movement, and box breathing activities, for example. Here is another case study to explain it in more detail:
A 24-year-old experienced panic attacks that left her overwhelmed and confused. By discovering the deeper layers, he identified that his main way of dealing with the situation was to avoid. While it worked to provide temporary relief, it didn’t make a dent in her accumulated emotional distress. Identifying that, for her, this was rooted in her fear of unpredictable changes, in her field of medicine, helped her understand her own experience and, in turn, led us to explore how she could comfortably cope with these uncomfortable emotions.
Once you feel physiologically calm, you will have room for emotional processing. The process might involve labeling the emotion, examining what it represents / means, and identifying what you need to cope with in a healthy way.
According to psychologist and teacher Todd kashan,
Embracing the need for all emotions has the benefit of “emotional agility,” which seeks to tap into one’s emotional awareness in every situation and adapt well.
It’s certainly easier said than done and there is a very fine balance between wallowing and creating space for negative emotions that will differ from person to person.
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