How to deal with negative thoughts and emotions

When talking about dealing with negativity, the standard advice usually comes along the lines of "think positive", "be optimistic", "overcome your pessimism", etc. But is it really possible to build up true resilience by denying your emotions?

A shorter version of this article had originally appeared as part of an "expert roundup" dealing with mental health. This article extends upon the original answer and has its title changed.

Positive thinking and "good vibes" certainly have their places in your life. They are important to keep you balanced and healthy, to help you stay motivated, push through hard times, or simply just enjoy the good ones. That said, having negative emotions—anything from sadness through emotional pain to deep sorrow—are as natural as joy, love and happiness and, more importantly, just as healthy.

Although psychologists and mental health professionals used to treat negativity as something undesirable, something to be addressed, to be changed, the contemporary understanding of mental health is shifting towards a more balanced approach. Negative emotions are increasingly recognised as an essential part of the human psyché, an important defence mechanism, that had allowed us to prepare for dangers, risks, and unexpected situations since the dawn of time. Suppressing your negativity can be damaging and, unintuitive as it may sound, negatively affect your mental health in the long term.

Negativity is as much part of the human experience as breathing, eating, or laughing. Nobody can live without it. Neither the celebrity or the social media phenomenon, whose job literally is to always appear positive, nor the friend or acquaintance who do their best to mimic their role models effectively, and always show the sunny side of their lives, even if it might only be arranged for social media. Striving to be like these deliberately constructed images is an unrealistic expectation, that can damage your mental health more than embracing your less than happy emotions.

Practitioners of meditation, yoga, mindfulness and similar (fortunately) popular practices can probably be even more susceptible to believe in, or pursue the need for eternally undisturbed happiness, even at the expense of dealing with real emotions. The culturally, socially and commercially reinforced images of constantly smiling, content people dressed in soft pastel colours and radiating tranquillity among peaceful surroundings can be truly inspiring and might serve as the much-needed nudge towards daily practice, or as tools of goal setting, giving something to strive towards. Yet, to believe that your life should always be sunny is not quite realistic.

While that still does not mean that you must indulge in negativity, and cherish your sadness, acknowledging the less than positive emotions, learning to accept them as an essential part of life will allow you to deal with them effectively, avoid the cognitive dissonance that often accompanies denial, and turn your negative experiences into important life-lessons, from which you might draw strength and even positivity.

Denial is a psychological defence method, often talked about in relation to grief, addiction, or just the reaction to upsetting information. While denial has its place in protecting your sanity, overindulging in it means that you rob yourself of the chance to correctly deal with negative emotions. When somebody pretends to be happy, regardless of what happens to them, and even in face of emotionally taxing experiences, they are most probably in denial, and this could be damaging.

Acknowledging your negative emotions is only the first step in the right direction. They exist, and the harder you try to suppress them, the harder they will keep coming back. They might have identifiable causes, like the loss of a loved one, while at other times, negativity might seem to occur "out of nowhere", in the form of depressing thoughts and emotions, a general feeling or demotivation, or in countless other ways. There is still nothing really wrong with this, as long as you do not let yourself be carried away with them. What you need to do is try and find meaning in these negative thoughts. Try to decipher the message your subconscious mind is trying to send you through these emotions. Negativity might be a warning, it can tell you something's off, something's missing or not right, or it might be an indicator that it is time to change your life in profound ways.

While it is impossible to give meaningful generalised advice about how to do this, there are a few things that you should keep in mind while seeking the wisdom in their meaning:

  • You are not alone. Others feel sad too; literally everybody goes through negative experiences. Often just talking to someone openly and honestly can do miracles. You might just need to get it out of your system, sharing your emotions might lead to unexpected insight, or you might gain valuable advice from someone who had been there before. When you suppress or deny your negativity, you rob yourself of this opportunity.
  • The answer can often be found in yourself. Mindfulness-based practices can teach you to observe your thoughts and emotions without judgement and could lead to better understanding yourself, while deeper meditation techniques, such as Zazen, or mantra-based meditations, might bring peace and quietness your troubled mind craves, out of which solutions so often arise.
  • Taking care of your body, and physical health is a prerequisite to preserving your mental health. Your overall energy levels can have an enormous impact on your emotional well-being. Practising Yoga or QiGong will help you to release stored tension, while more active exercises will re-energise your heart and mind.
  • Lastly—and this again can sound counter-intuitive after all you've just read—be positive about your negativity. This means, when you encounter it, don't give in to it. Remember, that you are never alone, even though that might be exactly how you feel at the time. Remember that you can do something about it, you can find meaning in it, you can turn into a beneficial experience. Remember that you, and only you are in control.

When you acknowledge and accept your negativity, you give yourself a chance to deal with it in a healthy and beneficial way, and might even learn or profit from it in the long term. Stay positive, but do not be afraid of accepting the need to be negative sometimes. If ever in doubt, just keep breathing. This too shall pass. :)

Image credit: unsplash-logo Drew Hays

About the author

Attila has been practising traditional meditation, QiGong and breathing techniques since early childhood. Not pretending to be a guru, or an enlightened being of any sort, his aim is to transmit what he has learned through these years, for everyone's benefit.

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