3 Ways to Respond to Negative Emotions

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Clients come to therapy for many reasons, but one of the most common goals clients express is the desire to be free from disturbing emotions. In my experience, coping strategies can be divided into three major categories, and here’s why detached awareness wins.

An Example from My Own Life

For me, going to the dentist isn’t a problem. It is waiting to see the dentist that bothers me. After I’m in the chair, I’m OK. It’s the hours, days and even weeks in advance that are far more unpleasant. It’s not the drills or the scrapers themselves that hurt me as much as the negative anticipation. I’m bothered more by my thoughts about the appointment than the appointment itself.

Which is to say I’m dealing with a recurrent, negative, emotion: anxiety and worry about seeing the dentist. Now that I know what the problem is, what can I do about it?

Fixation

Negative emotions are bad enough even once, but having these thoughts frequently and intensely makes them a problem worthy of therapy. A certain strain of common sense asserts that you “just need to get it out of your system.” For instance, people with anger problems were once asked to pound a pillow to “let out” their anger. I still occasionally see this advice given today, although the research literature is clear on this point: expressing anger physically (although harmlessly) doesn’t reduce anger. It makes anger worse.

There are some kinds of problems that do benefit from relentless examination and review. If you’re working on a puzzle or a math problem, sustained attention is what will bring you to the answer, and then the problem is done, once and for all. Negative emotions, unfortunately, are not “solved” as much as “managed.” And the more you try to “work on” your problematic emotions by focusing on them, the stronger they get.

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Of the three approaches to negative emotions, fixation (or “working through it” or “letting it out”) is the least promising of the approaches.

Denial/Evasion

If focusing on negative emotions is a dead end, then what about doing the exact opposite? Is it possible to push negative feelings out of your mind? The answer is both “yes” and “no.” The more overt forms of denial are doomed to failure. As soon as I tell myself “don’t think about the dentist,” I’ve just thought about the dentist. A classic introductory psychology demonstration asks participants to “not think about a giant white cat outside the window, looking in at you.” For most people, it’s a matter of seconds before a vivid imagining of the cat springs to mind.

Distraction is a more-successful member of the denial/evasion family. Rather than trying to not think about what’s disturbing me, I can think about something else, anything else. Watching TV, reading, playing with the computer, cleaning house: any of these activities can pull my mind away from what’s bugging me. And distraction works, at least for as long as the distraction lasts. The trouble with distraction is that you have to keep distracting yourself.

In other cases, biochemistry is enlisted to enforce distraction. From the classic “drinking to forget,” to illegal street drugs, and even some prescribed medications, all these chemicals alter how our brain works either to divert us from the troubling emotions, or to make them seem less upsetting. The downside is that these numbing agents aren’t problem specific: past a certain point of numbing, we stop caring about anything at all. Clearly a better approach is needed.

Detachment

If fixation is no help, and distraction only a temporary relief, what is left? I’ve found great value in a basic principal of mindfulness. During many forms of meditation, the aim is to, as much as possible, empty the mind of not just troubling thoughts, but any thoughts at all. How meditators work towards this goal is simple, but not necessarily easy.

This third response to negative thoughts is detached awareness. This response has two parts, the first being awareness. Fixation also includes awareness, but a different kind of awareness. When someone is fixated on an emotion, they’re aware of it in an active way. They are working on it, turning it over in their minds, getting wrapped up in it, trying to ‘fix’ the problem. Denial and evasion are, paradoxically, also active in regard to the problem emotions. They seek to actively push unwanted emotions out of the mind, or to replace them with something else.

The awareness of mindfulness is a detached awareness. When someone is detached regarding something, they recognize that they are free to observe without doing anything with it or about it. Detachment replaces all those impulses with stillness. Because the impulses may be habitual and automatic, it may take discipline to resist the urge to act on negative emotions. With practice, detachment becomes at first a conscious choice and maybe even a habit in and of itself.

One of the most hopeful things I’ve learned as a therapist is that thoughts rarely have much power that we don’t grant them by engaging them, denying them, or avoiding them. The most frequent outcome of detached awareness is that the once-troubling thought loses its ability to disturb when cut off from our willingness to engage it. Over time, the practice of detached awareness can transform upsetting, recurrent, enduring negative emotions into temporary, mild, and infrequent visitors.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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