Dropping the Struggle with Difficult Emotions

Allowing yourself to experience all emotions, whether pleasant or painful, can lead to greater psychological health, according to recent research conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Based on questionnaire and laboratory data, researchers found that people who typically resisted acknowledging their difficult emotions, or judged them harshly, reported more psychological stress than those who allowed themselves to experience difficult emotions.

This makes sense when we consider that emotional discomfort is a very normal human experience. Emotions such as sadness, anger and fear are not only common, but are also essential to our survival. They are like signals that send a message that something is important to us, or motivate us to act. Hence, trying to rid ourselves of these emotions not only takes up a lot of our time and energy, but in the long term is ultimately unsuccessful, as we are designed to have these emotions. In struggling with them, we end up magnifying our distress in experiencing both the emotion and the distress about having the emotion.

Allowing yourself to experience the discomfort, rather than struggling against it, is not about having to like or want the discomfort. Instead, it is about seeing the emotion for what it is and changing how we pay attention to it. For emotions do naturally pass, they build in intensity but then plateau and subside. We can use mindfulness processes to help us handle these emotional experiences.

As many people are probably now aware, there are a number of ways to engage in mindfulness processes, often coming down to individual preference. These include:

Noticing whatever you are feeling in the present moment. Observing sensations, their intensity, their location in the body, with curiosity rather than judgement. Identifying and labelling emotions.

Relating to your emotions with imagery, such as going up and down a wave in the ocean, floating leaves down a stream or even sushi passing you on a sushi train..

Noticing other sensations in the present moment, bringing your attention to what you can touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and what task you are doing.

Practicing kind self-talk, for example in reminding ourselves that it is normal and natural to have painful thoughts and feelings.

References

Ford, B., Lam, P., John, O. & Mauss, I. (2017). The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2017; DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000157

 

Written by

Dr Thea Longman
DClinPsych/MSc, BPsych (Hons)
Registered Clinical Psychologist

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