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Western psychologists to devout Buddhists preach the benefits of facing one’s less-appealing emotions. One pathway to these feelings is through mindfulness, or the practice of being a peaceful observer to the seemingly uncontrollable emotions and thoughts within.
People who practice this technique experience life from a conscious, purposeful place, and can view their surroundings as a detached spectator. They feel, and open themselves up to, negative emotions in order to grow and learn without judgment.
This allows for a level of acceptance that can set the stage for a more evolved treatment of negative situations, improving attitude and even health.
Dr. Sameet Kumar is a clinical psychologist at the Memorial Cancer Institute in Florida who works with cancer patients and their families—clients facing the gravest of human emotions. He believes that sadness, anger, and hopelessness serve their purpose in the continuation of our personal development.
“Negative emotions are a natural part of the human experience, so judging them will result in far more disastrous consequences than feeling these emotions,” Dr. Kumar tells BTR.
These disastrous consequences may include a build up of stress, which in turn raises blood pressure and the risk of panic attacks. In fact, studies show that the suppression of negative emotions may spur a continuation of harmful habits and disorders.
“Avoidance and suppression of emotions are well established as being maladaptive responses to stressors and have consistently been associated with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders,” says Holly Weber, a clinical psychology Doctoral student at University of Indianapolis.
Weber references a 2010 study that reviewed emotion-regulation strategies including acceptance, avoidance, problem solving, cognitive reappraisal, rumination, and suppression, in regard to their relationship with anxiety, depression, eating, and substance-related disorders.
The results found that mindfulness doesn’t occur without a fair portion of difficulty on the part of the individual, because most initial reactions to trauma or grief involve instant denial.
Strategies including avoidance and suppression seem to develop with little effort as compared to acceptance and reappraisal. The latter requiring more conscious thought and reflection to attain.
This shift in attitude away from denial sometimes necessitates a form of catharsis that may spur emotional growth. Catharsis is the release of repressed emotions that often occurs through acts such as crying, venting about problems, more violent acts such as screaming, or even the creation of art.
“Catharsis is a psychodynamic concept that has mixed results at best with empirical investigation,” says Dr. Kumar, “but what I often find is that getting to a moment of emotional intensity can bring a sense of clarity that changes coping skills for the better; and while I have seen catharsis work in my practice, it’s not often the case.”
Not everyone will reach mental clarity through catharsis, and it won’t necessarily speed along the acceptance process, but in some cases this act may lead the way for eventual healing.
Beyond catharsis, “negative emotions need to be accepted, understood, and integrated into the full experience of the self,” explains Dr. Noam Shpancer, a practicing clinician with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology in Ohio.
Denial doesn’t really work because an individual who never acknowledges their emotions can never get past them. Acceptance and open mindedness, on the other hand, pave the way for a person to move on.
Understanding negative emotions and their presence in life is a standard practice of those who preach mindfulness, as well as the doctors and researchers who study grief and denial.
“Denial of emotions can lead a person to feel numb or emotionally detached from
their experiences and the world around them,” Dr. Kumar describes, “but it is still beneficial to be able to manage the intensity of one’s emotions and behavioral response given the social
In other words, the healthiest method of dealing with negative emotions may involve liberal doses of self-control and wisdom, in understanding and exploring feelings in the appropriate setting. As opposed to total denial and avoidance, an individual must explore their emotions in suitable situations while maintaining daily functions.
“Experiencing emotion is healthy, but won’t necessarily change someone’s outlook on a situation,” outlines Weber. “The way they make meaning of their emotional experience and the situation at hand is what impacts the individual’s perspective.”
Weber points to studies on emotion-focused therapy (EFT), a method which encourages working through emotions in attempts to resolve them. The EFT’s effectiveness is in helping patients practice forgiveness and move on from their issues.
After analyzing their emotional responses, patients can approach future events from a more constructive standpoint and further understand the motivation behind their own reactions. Patients who embrace this form of mindfulness boast a reduction in stress as well as improved sleep, lowered blood pressure, and improvement in combating addiction.
“The reality of our internal architecture is that whatever you tell yourself you’re not allowed to feel, you are in fact already feeling,” says Dr. Shpancer, “and the denial of emotion many times renders the emotion much more harmful to us.”
Dr. Shpancer explains that our humanity includes “the whole range of emotions,” and that a total denial of all negative emotion “amounts to a denial of one’s full humanity” which in turn “amounts to a misrepresentation and devaluation of the self.”
In the short-term of accepting our broad range of emotions, says Dr. Shpancer, “outlook may degrade, because dealing with discomfort is uncomfortable.” However, learning to properly attend to an interim of emotional pain is the ultimate tool in developing long-term emotional health.
But just like Weber and Dr. Kumar, he warns of the harmful effects of embracing emotion in an unsuitable setting. Because emotions can present an incomplete or distorted image, they cannot take the steering wheel in every situation.
All or nothing solutions are unhealthy, Dr. Shpancer says, because while denial leads to a loss of “emotional knowledge” and “deficits in emotional management,” wallowing in sadness and negativity may render an experience as “one-dimensional.”
Total lack of emotional control can, according to Dr. Shpancer, cause just as much harm as total emotional avoidance. Ceasing control to emotional responses could prompt some initial emotional improvement, but is overall detrimental to health.
In this way, individuals must assess their surroundings and initial response before divulging emotions; but when we follow these guidelines, we gain immeasurable advantages like improved decision-making skills, patience, and healing.