Everyone has a bad day now and then. For some people, it may be as simple as missing the train and being late for work. For others it may be more serious, for example, you find out your spouse or significant other has been cheating on you.  Or perhaps a family member or close friend has just been diagnosed with a medical issue that may be difficult to overcome.  No matter what the reason, there is nothing wrong with feeling bad—adversity is part of life and getting through it can result in real personal growth.  Where we get into trouble is when we begin to ignore our emotions.

“Negative feelings, such as anger, fear and sadness are very unpleasant to experience,” says Susan Kolod, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in New York City.  “Often, such feelings, if taken seriously, require a person to take action of some sort.  For example, if a friend disappoints you or makes you angry, it might be necessary to confront that person. Confrontation can be very anxiety producing and painful, and many people mistakenly believe the best way to deal with these feelings is to put them out of your mind,” she said.

What Is Emotional Avoidance?

Many people learned during childhood to ignore, or avoid, bad things. But this ignoring bad experiences, and how you feel about them, will not make things better at all. In fact, the more you put off dealing or even acknowledging that something is wrong, the worse it becomes. Mental health experts refer to this as “emotional avoidance.”

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Some people who experience negative emotions may resort to unhealthy behaviors, explains Jamie Manwaring, PhD, a primary therapist at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado.  “These behaviors may include binge eating, over exercising or excessive use of alcohol as a way to deal with difficult feelings. Unhealthy coping behaviors such as these can work in the short-term, which is why people often return to them, but can lead to further problems in the long-term.”

Using Anger for Good

If you are troubled with anger, use the massive adrenaline in your system to feed your needs, take charge of your life and be proactive. (Anger and other emotions cause physical and biological changes in your body. Anger can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to increase and the level of the hormone, adrenaline, to rise.)

“Anger is a great wake up call to stop being dependent and waiting around, or thinking you are entitled in some way,” says Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. “Angry energy can be highly productive or destructive. But you can use it productively to sharpen up your boundaries so that you don’t get mad about being used, manipulated or disrespected. If you are full of envy, don’t complain or destroy the ones you envy, figure out a way of empowering yourself so that you can get your version of what you envy.”

Negative emotions are important and useful. They are warning signs that you may be in danger or might need to take action. As with physical pain, if you didn’t feel pain when you get too close to fire, you might burn yourself badly. If you feel frightened or angry, don’t try to disconnect from the feeling. Take some time to analyze why you might be feeling that way. You may realize you are in danger and should get out of the situation or that you need to confront the situation. On the other hand, you may realize that this situation is not serious but it has “triggered” you because it reminds you of another situation in the past that was dangerous. If the negative feelings arise from serious trauma, it can be an indication that professional help is warranted.

Tips for Using Negative Emotions Proactively

Here are 5 ways to help you find the positive in negative emotions:

  1. Focus on the positive things, no matter how small they may appear. No matter what obstacles or challenges you may face throughout your day, make every effort to focus on the positive side of the situation. For example, if you discover that your company is about to layoff some employees, use that time to evaluate your strengths and think about your options in case you are forced to find another job.
  2. Change negative self-talk into positive self-talk. When we talk badly about ourselves, we start to believe what we are saying which perpetuates the bad feelings.  When you find yourself starting to say things like, “I am a terrible person,” change that line into something like “I am a great person!” and within a few seconds your brain will process what you have said and you will react accordingly. It might feel silly at first, but you will be surprised at your body’s tendency to manifest the positive words you tell yourself. There is a lot of truth in the “power of positive thinking.”
  3. Surround yourself with positive people. If you find yourself surrounded by negative people and negative feelings, take a deep breath and walk away. Consider gentle ways of spending less time with these types of people. When you find positive friends and family members, cherish them and know that by spending time with them you can change your attitude for the better. You deserve people who are rooting you on.
  4. Stay in the present. Focus on what is happening now, and not what has taken place in the past.  For example, even if five minutes ago you received a negative comment from your boss, don’t let that simple act take away from the present.  Our imagination can run wild and replay negative experiences and memories, so stay in the present and keep everything else in the past where it belongs.
  5. Be thankful, no matter what is happening. Even if your life seems to be falling apart at the moment, there is always a reason to be thankful. Something overwhelming might be happening, but when you take a moment to appreciate the people in your life, your job, or simply your body and mind’s ability to be there for you, you’ll feel lighter. When you work to find gratefulness and thankfulness in each aspect of your life, you’ll find that situations that may have once upset or exhausted you feel less worrisome to deal with.

Accepting and processing negative thoughts and emotions can be difficult, especially during a time of crisis.  But we can find the good in negative emotions, once we accept the idea they are just part of the journey of life, and they will eventually lead to better times.

Last Updated: Oct 1, 2018