I’m so grateful for my 20-something self. She really went through it.
My twenties were kind of a mess. I drank too much. I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I sought personal validation from everyone and anyone (and if I didn’t get it, I’d spend a lot of time feeling really really really bad about myself).
The slightest setback would send me into an emotional spiral of doom. You get the picture.
But I’ve gotta admit, my life is totally different these days — and I can thank that 25-year-old “hot mess” self for that. Because she spent that time dealing with negative feelings, my 40-year-old self doesn’t suffer so much.
Now I get a solid eight hours of sleep each night, don’t drink nearly as much, don’t really care what others think of me, and never spiral.
Okay, that last one isn’t true, I definitely still do spiral.
But those spirals aren’t as intense, and they don’t last for very long. Sometimes when I remember how much energy I expended reeling from unwanted feelings, I get exhausted just thinking about it.
Looking back, I didn’t really do that much to change my outlook.
I was just in it.
Just the repetition of experiencing those emotions over and over again taught me how to process them. And even though I spent a lot of time shoving them aside and burying them and choosing to deal with them later, I spent small amounts of time actually feeling them and dealing with them, too.
Eventually, the time I spent dealing surpassed those moments of shoving aside and avoiding.
Dealing With Negative Feelings: 5 Tips for Making Friends With All Emotions
These five tips have helped me befriend all emotions — even the ones I’d rather ignore.
1. Don’t Ignore Feelings
Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that all animals are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That includes painful and pleasurable situations, relationships, and feelings, too.
When we experience type-one pleasure (easy gratification, like eating chocolate or getting a massage), our bodies release dopamine. When we experience mental and physical pain, our bodies release stress hormones.
These hormones help us survive. But they also drive our motivations, too.
If we’re constantly running away from all discomfort and seeking out easy pleasure instead of dealing with negative feelings, our lives become less meaningful. We also run the risk of missing out on type-two pleasures (or the pleasure we experience from something that requires some effort, like completing a workout or finishing a big project).
Running away from predators could potentially save our lives; yet, running away from feelings doesn’t make those feelings go away — it simply buries them until they resurface.
In fact, ignoring our negative emotions could be bad for our health. According to a 2013 Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester study, “Emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer.”
More research needs to be performed on the connection between emotional well-being and mortality. But other studies show that toxic positivity and thought suppression can actually lead to obsessing about the thoughts we’re trying to avoid.
And if we try to cover up negative feelings with positivity? Toxic positivity is just gaslighting oneself.
2. Get Curious
When I’m first starting to deal with an uncomfortable emotion, I just get curious about it.
Dealing with negative feelings and emotions is tough. And I don’t need to overwhelm myself with emotions. Doing so may actually make me more likely to avoid such emotions and feelings in the future.
Instead, I take some time to just get curious about the feeling. Psychologist Susan David says that our emotions provide us with information. Information about our values, wants, and needs.
They can tell us what we’re not getting enough of and what we may need more of in our lives.
Sidebar: I’m not really talking about trauma here. If I were dealing with trauma, I’d probably try to seek out the help of a mental health professional (though If finding a therapist who’s a good fit is leading to negative feelings, I see you).
A few questions I ask myself when negative emotions arise include:
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What is the worst-case scenario?
- Where do I feel the feeling in my body?
- Why am I feeling so strongly about this?
I don’t really have any goals for what I hope to find.
Also, I try not to judge my answers too much. (When I realized worry lives in my throat, chest, and stomach and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes worrying if I was going to ruin my digestive system with all this worry).
These questions are simply icebreakers or smalltalk I make with these feelings. I feel that doing this helps prevent me from shoving them to the side or running away from them.
Sometimes I just list the stuff that’s bothering me, in an activity I like to call, Crimes Against Alicia.
Dealing with negative feelings, like getting cut off in traffic, spam text messages, and other “transgressions” truly aren’t crimes against me. Reminding myself of that makes some space between me and the emotion.
Usually, I keep one running list of such “crimes” and items from previous days don’t usually trigger me in the same way they did when I wrote them down. It’s a reminder that most daily transgressions won’t have their emotional hooks in me forever and today’s “crimes” won’t feel as emotionally charged tomorrow as they do right now.
3. Make Friends With Your Feelings
Instead of trying to shove negative feelings to the wayside, make friends with them (or at the very least, consider them teachers instead of enemies).
In the book The Obstacle Is the Way, author Ryan Holiday explains how dealing with obstacles is actually what will lead to an easier life down the road (as did my experiences dealing with negative feelings and emotions in my twenties led me to greater emotional stability now).
If this is starting to feel a little like, “The real gift was the friends we made along the way,” or, “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” you’re right.
But there is some truth to that.
Though facing, dealing with, and befriending the feelings you’d rather not acknowledge is hard work, the reward can lead to a better mastery of those feelings — and emotional stability.
Sometimes I even take things a step further and savor my negative feelings (a.k.a. throw myself a pity party). What is savoring? The act of drinking in and fully enjoying an experience — even a bad one.
4. Deal With Physiological Responses
Dealing with negative feelings can lead to physiological responses. Both anxiety and excitement may result in the feeling of “butterflies”. Both joy and tension can result in laughter.
But with “positive” emotions, such as excitement, the feeling doesn’t stay in our bodies forever.
Those feelings may recycle themselves once the thing we’re excited about happens. But if we’re feeling constant anxiety or dread, those feelings may not go away — especially if the thing we dread happens daily or if anxiety is a common occurrence.
I hold stress and worry in my lower back and hips, and I’ve spent more than my fair share of afternoons in the ER because my back finally gave out from ignoring those feelings. Doctors could never find anything “wrong” with me, and the pain stop happening when I wasn’t in a constant state of stress.
Dealing with negative feelings is one way to make a racing heart or elevated stress hormones go away. But when I’m in a constant state of stress or worry, relaxing my body can help put my mind in a space where I can deal with my emotions.
That’s focusing on the four-second inhale and six-second exhale for 40 minutes a day. Did I do that? Hell, no.
One tool I’ve found to deal with physiological responses is biofeedback breathing, which can improve your heart rate variability (HRV) — or the variance between heartbeats.
High HRV can help our bodies shift from fight-flight-or-freeze mode and back into parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” mode.
With biofeedback breathing (also known as HRV training), all you do is inhale for four seconds and exhale for six seconds. According to Dr. Leah Lagos, author of Heart, Breath, Mind: Train Your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success, doing HRV training for 20 minutes, twice a day, for 10 consecutive weeks, can help rewire your stress response.
That’s focusing on the four-second inhale and six-second exhale for 40 minutes a day. Did I do that? Hell, no.
But I do practice biofeedback breathing when I’m dealing with negative feelings or can’t sleep. It helps me calm down, and I can feel my heart rate slowing down a little when I do it. Is it really working or is it a placebo effect?
The above study showed that participants who used diaphramic breathing exhibited lower cortisol levels, which makes sense: diaphramic breathing, “stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.”
Is biofeedback breathing the only tool to calm the nervous system? Absolutely not. Emotional freedom tapping (EFT), meditation, listening to music, and going for a walk are all great mood boosters, too.
If it works for you, do it.
5. Take a Break
Sometimes we just need a break from our own shit.
While dealing with negative feelings is important, we all have a breaking point of how much we can feel.
I have a few activities I keep on deck whenever I need to take a ‘lil break from my feelings. The purpose of these activities isn’t to run from my feelings or avoid them. They simply provide a small break (I usually set a time limit for feelings breaks of 5 or 10 minutes) from intense emotions.
We all need to take breaks. If you’re experiencing traumatic feelings, such as grief, you’d take small breaks from those feelings, right? On the day of a funeral, you’ll probably feel sadness but may still find yourself laughing at a funny dog video or feeling love or admiration for the person you lost (or maybe even for the people who are still here).
Sometimes I read a book, play a game on my phone that triggers flow state, or watch a home decorating show — something I know will allow me to forget the uncomfortable feeling for just a little bit.
I also need to remind myself that negative feelings don’t last forever. That’s why I make lists of “feel-bad days” to remember that I’ve bounced back before. And I also make lists of feel-good days for good feels inspiration.
The negative feeling usually returns eventually, but just as taking small breaks when solving a problem can lead to “aha” moments, an emotional break can also provide insight and information.
6. It’s OK Not to Deal Sometimes
There are some issues that if I just dealt with them, my life would probably improve a lot.
Avoiding hard conversations, getting curious (instead of combative) about important issues and politics, and phone anxiety are all issues I should probably tackle. If I did, I would be able to navigate my life and the world so much easier.
Yet, I know my limits.
I’d argue that when I’m dealing with negative feelings, 80% of the time, I address them in some way. 20% of the time, the thought, I’m just not ready yet, pops into my head.
In these situations, I allow myself to set the thing aside.
Maybe I journal about it, trying to figure out why the thing is so uncomfortable in the first place. To shove the feeling aside, I need to have a really strong feeling that I’m just not ready to deal with whatever it is yet.
But before I can tackle my fun goals, I often find I need to deal with Big Emotions first.
Hey, hey! Just a few things before you leave… this post contains affiliate links, so if you buy something after clicking on a one, I might (fingers crossed!) just get a little commission. Good news: I only recommend products that I love! Which means you can feel good about all of my recs.
Also, you should know that I’m not a doctor. More importantly, I’ve never played one on TV. Always consult your doctor before taking any advice from me (or anyone else on the internets for that matter).
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.