Feeling sad, mad, critical or otherwise awful? Surprise: negative emotions are essential for mental health
Courtesy: By Tori Rodriguez
“Taking the Bad with the Good” 2013, Published in 2013
A client sits before me, seeking help untangling his relationship problems. As a psychotherapist, I strive to be warm, nonjudgmental and encouraging. I am a bit unsettled, then, when in the midst of describing his painful experiences, he says, “I’m sorry for being so negative.”
A crucial goal of therapy is to learn to acknowledge and express a full range of emotions, and here was a client apologizing for doing just that. In my psychotherapy practice, many of my clients struggle with highly distressing emotions, such as extreme anger, or with suicidal thoughts. In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.
In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Positive thoughts and emotions can, of course, benefit mental health. Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction. Taken to an extreme, however, that definition is not congruent with the messiness of real life. In addition, people’s outlook can become so rosy that they ignore dangers or become complacent Eudaemonic approaches, on the other hand, emphasize a sense of meaning, personal growth and understanding of the self—goals that require confronting life’s adversities. Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life’s ups and downs. “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences,” Adler says.
Adler and Hal E. Hershfield, a professor of marketing at New York University, investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people undergoing 12 sessions of psychotherapy. Before each session, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their psychological well-being. They also wrote narratives describing their life events and their time in therapy, which were coded for emotional content. As Adler and Hershfield reported in 2012, feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time—for example, “I feel sad at times because of everything I’ve been through, but I’m also happy and hopeful because I’m working through my issues”—preceded improvements in well-being over the next week or two for subjects, even if the mixed feelings were unpleasant at the time. “Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being,” the researchers found.
Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts actually harbored more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue.
Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it. In a 2011 study psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. Those who tried to muffle the thought reported dreaming about it more, a phenomenon called dream rebound.
Suppressing thoughts and feelings can even be harmful. In a 2012 study psychotherapist Eric L. Garland of Florida State University and his associates measured a stress response based on heart rate in 58 adults in treatment for alcohol dependence while exposing them to alcohol-related cues. Subjects also completed a measure of their tendency to suppress thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.
Accepting the Pain
Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state. Many people find it helpful to breathe slowly and deeply while learning to tolerate strong feelings or to imagine the feelings as floating clouds, as a reminder that they will pass. I often tell my clients that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more.
If the emotion is overwhelming, you may want to express how you feel in a journal or to another person. The exercise may shift your perspective and bring a sense of closure. If the discomfort lingers, consider taking action. You may want to tell a friend her comment was hurtful or take steps to leave the job that makes you miserable.
You may also try doing mindfulness exercises to help you become aware of your present experience without passing judgment on it. One way to train yourself to adopt this state is to focus on your breathing while meditating and simply acknowledge any fleeting thoughts or feelings. This practice may make it easier to accept unpleasant Earlier this year Garland and his colleagues found that among 125 individuals with a history of trauma who were also in treatment for substance dependence, those who were naturally more mindful both coped better with their trauma and craved their drug less. Likewise, in a 2012 study psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University and her co-workers found that a therapy that included mindfulness training helped individuals overcome anxiety disorders. It worked not by minimizing the number of negative feelings but by training patients to accept those feelings.
“It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts,” Sauer-Zavala says. Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key, she adds. Indeed, once my client accepted his thoughts and feelings, shaking off his shame and guilt, he saw his problems with greater clarity and proceeded down the path to recovery.
Reference: This article was originally published with the title “Taking the Bad with the Good” 2013.
TORI RODRIGUEZ is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice in Atlanta.
“Born in Nasirabad, a small village in the lower Hunza valley, I remember our lives being dictated not by a calendar or a clock but by the climate and seasons. I remember celebrating wheat harvest for we could regularly eat bread thenceforth. In the spring, I remember eating mulberries and dried apricots for lunch and dinner. I loved collecting mulberries: shaking the branches of a tree, picking up the fruit and gobbling down handfuls without noticing that half of what I ate was sand. Life was simple and serene, but also challenging.
I was lucky to have access to the local Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee School, essentially a make-shift school with only one instructor who taught multiple classes, six days a week, from early mornings till late afternoons. Like many school-going children, I fancied skipping classes but only to be caught red-handed by my cousin and brought back to the school. I was, nevertheless, the class-monitor and would often lead lessons in the absence of the teacher. Perhaps, that was an early sign of my interest in teaching as a profession.
In early sixties, I moved to Karachi where my elder brother lived. With his support, I completed secondary and higher secondary schools with good grades. I did my BA from Saint Patrick’s College, Karachi while also working part-time at a factory and leading a worker’s union. I also managed to complete professional teaching courses and a diploma in English language during those years. Regarding my life outside of work and studies, I enjoyed spending time with friends and doing social work. Karachi was a vibrant city back then. It was clean, safe and economical.
Following my BA, I dedicated most of my time to teaching. I taught at two schools during the day and ran a private tuition center in the evening. I was primarily an English language teacher but I also taught social studies and history. I was known as a storyteller amongst my students due to my love of folktales. I loved my work. Being in school felt like home to me. I was beginning to realize that teaching was my passion.
In 1980, following my father’s passing, I returned to Hunza. Within a few months I was offered a teaching job at Public Schools and Colleges Jutial, Gilgit, formerly known as Federal Government Public School. At that time I did not know I would end up spending the rest of my professional life working there. Some may call it settling down a bit too early, but to me, the thirty-three years I spent at the school entailed a new experience, a new challenge every day.
In the initial years, being one of the few local teachers at the school, I always felt responsible to adopt a sound and context-specific teaching methodology. I tried to teach in a manner that catered to individual needs of students, and whenever possible, had meetings with parents to discuss students’ progress. On a personal level, I continued my education as a part time student and received a post-graduate degree and a professional teaching certificate from Punjab University. It was a challenging but a rewarding process.
During the many years I spent at the school, I saw it grow from a primary school to an undergraduate college. I also got a first-hand experience of the rich diversity that exists in a region as small as Gilgit-Baltistan. The languages, habits, routines, perceptions, opinions, attitudes, and conscious and unconscious actions of those around me helped me reinvent and rediscover what it meant to be a teacher. One thing that did consistently remain part of my pedagogy was storytelling. Perhaps that is what most of my students remember about my teaching and keep referring back to every time I see them.
The school remained an integral part of my life for thirty-three years. I was deeply attached with my profession, the students, the constructions, even the plants and trees at the school. Towards the end of my tenure, it was remarkable to see the children of my former students becoming my students again and sharing with me childhood accounts of their parents. It made me consistently question, analyze and improve my role as a senior mentor of the institution.
Following my retirement in December 2013, the Science Block of the school was named after me in recognition of my services. It felt great, but what feels greater is to see my students excelling in different fields including engineering, arts and crafts, business, medicine, army, civil bureaucracy, and above all, teaching. I go back to the school sometimes to meet with my colleagues and to observe student activity. I am hopeful that in the coming years the school will continue to grow not just quantitatively but also quality-wise. ”
(Sir Shakoor Khan, Nasirabad, Hunza)
Story narrated by Irfan Shakoor
Just added few glimpses from the past.We would like to have old collections from our dear fellows and their contribution in this regard is deemed highly appreciable
If you can contribute either in shape of old snaps, any records, or any material / writing that could boost our passion and and let us recall those golden memories from the PAST
email us any material if you have @
We are establishing a data base for our Jutialians.Already have managed to get hold of records up-to 8-10 batches since 1983-84
Any one who could share details in a collective way will be appreciated.Ont he other hand, individual introduction might also be helpful.
We have added what we got or know by our personal contacts.For sure its like a bubble in the ocean, thus collectively we might be able to proceed successfully, thus we need an aggressive response so that energies will be upheld, and efforts will not be diminished