Accepting and embracing your negative emotions can actually make you feel better in the long run, a new study out of UC Berkeley says.
According to researchers, feeling that pressure of needing to be constantly upbeat will not make you feel better – in fact, it will make you feel worse because of added stress.
“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” senior author Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley said in a statement.
People who allow these feelings of sadness, disappointment and resentment “run their course,” the team found that these individuals are more likely to report fewer mood disorder symptoms than those who judge them and push them away, even after six months.
To find this out, researchers conducted three separate studies on several groups both in the lab and online. They factored in age, gender, socio-economic status and other demographic elements.
In the first study, over 1,000 participants filled out a survey. They were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with certain statements like, “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” Those who didn’t feel bad about feeling bad were more likely to show higher levels of well-being than their accepting counterparts.
In another experiment, this time in a lab setting, 150 participants were given two minutes to prepare and deliver a three-minute recorded speech to a panel of judges. This was to represent a mock job application, to show off their communication skills and other “relevant” qualifications.
After the task was done, they were asked to rate their emotions about the event. And just as the research team expected, those who avoided negative feelings reported more distress.
For the final study, over 200 people were asked to journal their most “taxing experiences” for two weeks. When asked about their psychological health six months later, those who avoided expressing negative emotions reported more mood disorder symptoms than those who didn’t shy away from revealing their emotions.
It’s not clear why this dynamic exists, the team admits, but they have a theory.
“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” Mauss said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”
Feeling negative is a natural response to stressors, lead author Brett Ford told Global News, and in the short run, these negative emotions might actually help people respond to stressors more successfully, for example getting nervous in anticipation of a closing deadline.
“People don’t necessarily feel this way, though – while some individuals accept their negative emotions and thoughts as natural, others judge these negative experiences and strive to change them,” Ford said. “Theoretically, acceptance should help people from ruminating over their negative emotions and from judging these emotions and prolonging their overall experience of negativity.”
Perhaps what surprised Ford the most was how this correlation applied to varying types of people.
“I was somewhat surprised and excited to see how useful acceptance was for so many people, finding that acceptance was equivalently beneficial for people of different genders, race, socio-economic status, and who are experiencing varying levels of stress,” she said. “This underscores the broad relevance of acceptance as a useful tool for many people.”
Ford hopes that people walk away knowing that while processing negative emotions are difficult, it might actually help our mental health in the long run.
“It’s so natural to want to get rid of negative emotions but here are a couple of more concrete ways to think about it: When times are tough and you’re feeling angry, worried, sad, and so forth – try to simply let your feelings happen,” she said. “Allow yourself to experience your feelings, without judging those feelings and without try to control or change them.”
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.