How to Manage Negative Emotions
Updated: May 5, 2022
How do you control, process, and release negative emotions? Find out here.
The dictionary defines negative emotion as "an unpleasant, often disruptive, emotional reaction." But negative emotions also have functions. Fear motivates us to engage in either fight or flight in response to a threat or predator. Negative emotions like jealousy, for example, are thought to motivate us to restore important social bonds in the face of threats. Negative emotions like embarrassment motivate others to forgive us if we have done something wrong. And negative emotions like sadness motivate sympathy and lead others to help us more (Keltner & Kring, 1998).
As you can see, even though negative emotions feel bad, they have important functions that help us have experiences that make us feel better and even thrive in the longer term. This is a big part of why avoiding negative emotions—or shoving them down with suppression or repression—isn't really good for us (and it may not even really work, but that's a more nuanced discussion). So instead of running from our negative emotions, we're better off learning to deal with and process our negative emotions in healthy ways. We'll talk more about that below.
Negative Emotions & Health
We might assume that negative emotions are bad for our health, but it's not quite that simple. Whether we express, suppress, or repress our negative emotions makes a big difference for our health (with suppression and repression being the less healthy choices). In addition, whether or not we experience positive emotions along with our negative emotions makes a big difference too (Hershfield, Scheibe, Sims, & Carstensen, 2013).
Some research suggests that if we can feel some positive emotions along with our negative emotions, this might actually be the best option. We get the benefits of negative emotions without so many of the pitfalls. As the researchers put it, this strategy of "taking the good with the bad" might be the best for our health because we are able to deal with and process the negative emotions and possibly find some good in difficult experiences (Hershfield, Scheibe, Sims, & Carstensen, 2013).
How to Control Negative Emotions
Even though negative emotions can have some benefits, there may be many times when we want to control them. Luckily, the truth is that there are a lot of strategies we can use to control our emotions. We can decrease negative emotions and increase positive emotions through processes known as emotion regulation.
Some of the most well-known, effective emotion regulation strategies are:
Reappraisal: Reframing a negative experience in a more positive light.
Acceptance: Letting our negative emotions be just as they are is, ironically, a fairly effective strategy for reducing them.
Savoring: Noticing and holding onto positive emotions.
Some well-known ineffective emotion regulation strategies are:
Suppression: Not expressing your emotions on your face or in words.
Experiential Avoidance: Often this involves engaging in unhealthy behaviors like drug use, alcohol use, over-eating, and under-eating, but it can also include things like "retail therapy" or other avoidance strategies.
Rumination: Replaying negative thoughts in your mind over and over again.
How to Manage Negative Emotions
We talked a bit about how negative emotions have important functions, especially social functions. And we just talked about how to manage our emotions effectively. To deal with emotions effectively, these two things need to be balanced.
For example, if someone is mistreating us and we're angry yet we try to implement the emotion regulation strategy of acceptance, we might unintentionally cut our anger short, preventing us from standing up for ourselves and stopping any further mistreatment. Or, if we're feeling afraid, our gut might be telling us that we need to pay attention to possible threats. Perhaps this is why having a little bit of anxiety actually helps improve our effort and performance (Hardy & Hutchinson, 2007).
So, controlling our negative emotions might not actually be the best plan of action, at least not all the time. Instead, we might be better served by processing and then releasing negative emotions. This way, they hopefully won't pop back up or cause problems in other areas of our lives.
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Hardy, L., & Hutchinson, A. (2007). Effects of performance anxiety on effort and performance in rock climbing: A test of processing efficiency theory. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 20(2), 147-161.
Hershfield, H. E., Scheibe, S., Sims, T. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (2013). When feeling bad can be good: Mixed emotions benefit physical health across adulthood. Social psychological and personality science, 4(1), 54-61.
Keltner, D., & Kring, A. M. (1998). Emotion, social function, and psychopathology. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 320-342.