We all experience dynamic mood changes: these being due to unexpected life events, our unmet expectations, lack of sleep, or no reasons at all known to us at the time. When we feel happy or content, we might stop and pay attention to how this feels and have a fleeting moment of realisation that life can be great. However, what about times when we feel all the other less pleasant emotions? What are the underlying forces for those emotions? How are those feelings affecting us? And is there anything that can be realistically and meaningfully done about those at the time when they are experienced?
I would like to introduce some ideas that might be helpful in answering these questions.
1. NOT ALL NEGATIVE EMOTIONS ARE UNHEALTHY
Humans beings are emotional creatures and with that both positive and negative emotions come along. If we stop and think about it, all emotions have a function, including the less pleasant ones. What would it say about a person if he/she did not experience sadness upon losing someone or feeling disappointment after not achieving something they have been working towards? Wouldn’t that make the positive emotions redundant? Negative emotions might actually motivate us to do better or to appreciate others more as well as to make changes in our lives.
Experiencing negative emotions is therefore important as they provide us with important information about ourselves and the world around us. Emotions are accompanied by different physiological reactions that can provide release. For example, when sad, one cries, which is an intelligent way to release stress hormones or toxins from the body (Lauren Bylsma, University of South Florida) or to provide emotional release of build-up emotions (assistant prof. David Geffen, School of Medicine, UCLA).
However, why to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy Negative emotions? The reason for this is that emotions tell us a lot about our inner belief systems and the way we think about ourselves, the world, and other people.
That brings us to the second point.
2. PSYCHOLOGICAL INTERACTIONISM
A fancy term for a simple idea: Basically, what it means is that the way we think, based on our belief system and personal values, influences the way we emotionally react to different situations as well as how we behave at the time. Nothing new though, as this simple, yet powerful notion, had been proposed by the ancient philosophers, Epictetus (55-135 AD), being one of them.
Now, one of the most rigorously researched and successfully applied therapeutic approaches (Cognitive Behavioural therapy) recognises this close link between the way we think and the way we feel and behave.
Here is an example: Preparing to speak to the boss about pay raise
THOUGHTSFEELINGSBEHAVIOURS “He will definitely Anxious Making excuses to oneself
turn me down” that current pay is good enough (avoidance) and not speaking to him about it at all
“He might turn me down but Concern Prepare well for the meeting he might not as I am good at in order to present one’s case what I do”
Above is the SAME situation, in which might the person be more likely to get a pay raise? I hope you say the second one.
In both instances both individuals are experiencing emotions that are negative and unpleasant.
UHEALTHY EMOTIONS However, in the first instance the person’s appraisal of the situation is based on their thoughts that are irrational and inflexible and therefore they feel an Unhealthy Emotion of being highly Anxious, which stops them from even giving themselves the opportunity to improve their situation.
Unhealthy negative emotions
Stem from irrational, inflexible, and ultimately unhelpful beliefs and thoughts
Those also affect the way people behave, which is usually unconstructive behaviour such as avoidance or aggression
In the second instance, the person has more flexible and rational thought processes which have an effect on the way they feel – Concern, which is a Healthy emotional response to an adversity. Due to holding more flexible and rational thoughts they also giving themselves the best opportunity to get a raise or at least to prepare themselves to present their case to their boss in the best way possible.
Healthy negative emotions
Are based on rational, more flexible, and helpful beliefs and thoughts
Also affect the way people behave as when people are not blocked by anxiety they can make better decisions of how to approach problems
The notion of making distinction between two different types of Negative Emotions, is based on the Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) principles (work by Albert Ellis. 1950’s).
You can start making simple changes today. By recognising your emotional state when you are upset and then reflecting on what might be going through your mind at the time, you can begin to recognise and learn about your thought processes. You can then begin to challenge those by asking yourself questions such as:
- Are those thoughts rational and based on reality? Do they make complete sense? - Are they flexible or rigid? Is there another way of looking at this? What would someone who I respect suggest in that situation? - Do these thoughts help me to achieve my personal goals or things that are important to me? If not, then what might be alternative ways of looking at this?