Do you ever feel anxious and then worry about the anxiety? In other words, do you have anxiety about your anxiety? Many times after feeling a negative emotion, we then beat ourselves up over it. Negative emotions can be messy and uncomfortable, but are they actually bad for you?
Science answers this question with a resounding NO! All emotions serve a purpose and adopting the right mindset about why we feel certain emotions is paramount to mental and physical health.
Why Mindset Matters
In a large-scale study conducted in 1998, approximately 28,000 Americans were asked (1) how much stress they experienced in the previous year, and (2) if they believed that stress was harmful to their health.
More than half the respondents said they experienced “moderate” to “a lot” of stress the previous year. That wasn’t the shocking finding. Here’s the kicker: While both groups had an increased likelihood of poorer physical and mental health, only members of the second group with a stress-is-harmful mindset increased their risk of premature death—and it went up by 43%. In other words, the combination of stress plus one’s stress-is-harmful mindset is what caused real damage.
I propose the importance of mindset extends to all emotions. If we believe certain emotions are bad for us and try to quash, control, or avoid them, this can be far more detrimental then letting them surface. It’s time to reframe our view of emotions.
Emotions are Filled with Purpose
Every emotion has a purpose, and even negative emotions have an upside. Here are some research-based examples.
- Anger: Research shows that anger can spur your problem-solving abilities. It can serve as a signal that it’s time to defend yourself or those you are about to help. Anger can also mobilize collective action—many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, cited anger as what spurred them to action.
- Guilt: Studies demonstrate people with a tendency to feel guilty are less likely to steal, use drugs, assault someone, or drive drunk. Guilt tells us that we’re violating our moral code, which makes us more socially sensitive and adds to our moral fiber.
- Stress: Research reveals that good stress (otherwise known as “eustress”) can boost productivity, motivation, and performance. When in danger, the stress response provides heightened perception, improves vision, amplifies hearing, and improves your problem-solving abilities. In short, stress helps us survive.
Instead of viewing emotions as good/bad or positive/negative, let’s call them what they really are: communication tools. Let’s change the discourse about emotions and how we interact with them. Instead of quashing our anger, for example, we can experience it mindfully. Allow it to arise, feel what’s happening inside, listen to the message, and learn from the experience.
For more ThoughtBusters and anxiety-relief tools for you and your children, visit www.gozen.com
More references on the advantages of “negative” emotions:
Kashdan, T., & Diener, R. (n.d.). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self–not just your “good” self–drives success and fulfillment.
McGonigal, K. (n.d.). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it.