When it comes to our emotions, we usually sort them into one of two categories: when we feel good, we view our emotional state as positive; and when we’re feeling irritated, frustrated or angry, we feel that these kinds of emotions are negative. But our emotions can be much more nuanced in how they serve us.

Describing some of our emotions as negative implies that that they are either dysfunctional, bad, undesirable, or a combination of the three. Prolonged experiences of negative emotions can, of course, have adverse consequences for our health and overall well-being[1],[2].

Attempting to suppress unpleasant emotions and negative experiences doesn’t help very much — suppressing anger, for instance, is found to be associated with elevated blood pressure[3]. On the other hand, venting our frustrations does us no good, either. Studies show that venting elevates, rather than diminishes anger and aggressive behaviour[4],[5]. Another ‘negative’ state, anxiety — when experienced often enough — functions to create crippling phobias that inhibit our day-to-day functioning[6].

When we think of so-called negative emotions, it can be helpful to realise they’re not always such a bad thing. Unpleasant emotions aren’t necessarily negative influences, and neither are they dysfunctional. Unpleasant emotions, to us, are viewed as negative because they arouse undesirable feelings in us. However, for most of the time, we neglect to spot the difference between an emotion that is dysfunctional, and when it’s actually beneficial to our well-being.

Working with negative emotions

As we think of  negative emotions, the likes of anger, fear, sadness (or depression), guilt, loneliness, and shame might come to mind. Now try to think of a pleasant emotion besides happiness. You might have thought of joy, or perhaps love. You’ll probably have found it easier to list unpleasant emotions than you did pleasant emotions. This is because our inherent, in-built negative bias[7] towards unpleasant emotions has been — and still is — essential to our survival as a species. As a result, when unpleasant emotion states are experienced, they prompt stronger, more reactive behaviours than pleasant emotions[8].

We could compare unpleasant emotions to an alarm system. For such an alarm to be helpful to our survival, it’s more advantageous for the alarm to overestimate, rather than underestimate threats. A fire alarm that fails to sound when there is a fire is going to be more hazardous to us than a fire alarm that sounds when there isn’t a fire. In the same way, our unpleasant emotions follow a similar ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ mechanism, prompting us to respond impulsively in the interest of our survival. These unpleasant emotions, and our negatively-biased emotional minds, are concerned primarily with our survival. Our base instincts don’t care whether our reactions bring us happiness or ensures our psychological well-being in the long run.

With this in mind, it would help to be more mindful of our unpleasant emotions the next time they arise. Being mindful allows us to pause and consider how our emotions are altering our thoughts and priming us to act. Anger, for example, triggers an intention to respond aggressively to someone who has caused us offence. Being mindful of the anger impulse helps us to recognise that anger’s effects are largely instinctive and automatic — but crucially, that our responses towards anger can be controlled.

Promisingly, mindfulness practices have been shown to be effective in helping to stop us from replaying negative scenarios in our heads over and over again [9]. Mindfulness-based approaches have also been found to be effective in treating anxiety and mood problems[10]. Being mindful of fear as an imperfect, jumpy alarm system encourages us to fine-tune our responses towards situations that trigger worry and anxiety.

Whenever we experience negative mental states, such as anger or fear, it’s impossible to rid ourselves of them by feeling more angry or fearful. By being mindful, however, we take that first step towards understanding our unpleasant emotions.

Awareness and acceptance

Mindfulness helps us first be aware of, then understand how unpleasant feelings arise, which then allows us to react in a way that’s beneficial to our well-being. The same mindful approach can be applied towards emotions besides anger and fear. Shame and guilt, for example, are referred to as ‘self-conscious’ emotions. These emotions are experienced when we form unfavourable evaluations of ourselves and our abilities or actions. We feel shame when we have fallen short of our own capabilities and standards, and we feel guilt when we feel we’ve betrayed our values and ended up hurting someone.

These unpleasant emotions encourage us to take corrective actions, reminding us that we can do better in the future. Dwelling on shame and guilt is detrimental to our physical and psychological well-being and has been shown to be associated with higher levels of stress and a weakened immune system[11]. However, being mindful of the functions of shame and guilt, and choosing to respond with self-compassion (i.e. giving ourselves a break) helps us channel these unpleasant emotions towards accepting ourselves, which opens the door to improving our behaviours.

Part of being self-compassionate means to accept that we all share unpleasant emotions and feelings — it’s part of what makes us human. Rather than beating ourselves up or trying to suppress negative emotion states when they arise, we should instead practise taking a step back and stop ourselves from reacting immediately, as we might tend to do. The next time you feel a negative emotion begin to rise, try saying to yourself, “This is just a feeling and feelings change — it will pass soon enough.” It’s interesting to see what happens in the mind after you try this the first few times.

Try This: The next time you experience unpleasant emotions, try to avoid labelling them as ‘negative’, or thinking that you ‘shouldn’t feel this way.’ Instead, check whether your emotions are helpful to you in that moment and, if not, consciously tell yourself that it will soon pass. Then, respond to your unpleasant emotional state compassionately — that is, in a way that’s accepting of both yourself and the situation which may have caused you to feel those unpleasant emotions in the first place. The table below provides some suggestions for dealing with five unpleasant states.

Unpleasant Emotion Mindful Assessment of Unpleasant Emotion and a Possible Compassionate Response Compassionate Response to Unpleasant Emotion
Fear  

Fear is an emotion that helps warn me of threats and dangers. I can choose to understand the fear as useful and necessary, keeping me safe from harm. Fear, however, can be possibly problematic, or even irrational.

 

I can face up to my fears, understanding them fully first, before responding to these challenges courageously.
Anger  

Anger is an emotion that helps me express my boundaries and limits of what is acceptable and appropriate to others. This emotion motivates me to act in response to actions that displease me.

 

While its influence is strong, I can choose to convey my anger is an assertive, but non-aggressive manner.
Sadness  

Sadness is an emotion that helps conveys to others that I am in pain, experiencing suffering. Sadness may also cause me to withdraw and avoid others around me.

 

I can choose to see sadness as a sign that I may need help from others, and that it’s okay to seek help from those who I know care about me.
Shame  

Shame is an emotion that tells me that I have fallen short of my own expectations. Shame tells me that I can be better than I currently am.

 

I can choose a self-compassionate response when I fail in my efforts and stop being unnecessarily harsh or unforgiving towards myself.
Guilt  

Guilt is an emotion that tells me that I have violated my own moral standards and have done something that has caused hurt and offence to others.

 

I can choose to let this emotion guide me towards being a more compassionate, empathetic and kind person.

References:

[1] Chida, Y., & Steptoe, A. (2009). The association of anger and hostility with future coronary heart disease: a meta-analytic review of prospective evidence. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 53(11), 936-946.

[2] Schum, J. L., Jorgensen, R. S., Verhaeghen, P., Sauro, M., & Thibodeau, R. (2003). Trait anger, anger expression, and ambulatory blood pressure: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 26(5), 395-415.

[3] Dimsdale, J. E., Pierce, C., Schoenfeld, D., Brown, A., Zusman, R., & Graham, R. (1986). Suppressed anger and blood pressure: the effects of race, sex, social class, obesity, and age. Psychosomatic Medicine, 48(6), 430-436.

[4] Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Phillips, C. M. (2001). Do people aggress to improve their mood? Catharsis beliefs, affect regulation opportunity, and aggressive responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 17-32.

[5] Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

[6] Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2006). Expanding the topography of social anxiety an experience-sampling assessment of positive emotions, positive events, and emotion suppression. Psychological Science, 17(2), 120-128.

[7] Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383-403.

[8] Carretié, L., Mercado, F., Tapia, M., & Hinojosa, J. A. (2001). Emotion, attention, and the ‘negativity bias’, studied through event-related potentials. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 41(1), 75-85.

[9] Borders, A., Earleywine, M., & Jajodia, A. (2010). Could mindfulness decrease anger, hostility, and aggression by decreasing rumination?. Aggressive Behavior, 36(1), 28-44.

[10] Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.

[11] Dickerson, S. S., Kemeny, M. E., Aziz, N., Kim, K. H., & Fahey, J. L. (2004). Immunological effects of induced shame and guilt. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66(1), 124-131.