Feeling Overwhelmed? How to deal with negative emotions


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Many people have the experience of feeling overwhelmed when going through hard times. In modern society, a person’s life is like a house of cards, and a single gust – a layoff at work, a bad breakup, an injury, a misunderstanding, or a bit of bad luck – could knock it over. We humans have the tendency to avoid negative experiences and negative emotions. Many people run away from these uncomfortable feelings.

Given so many amenities available to us today, it’s so easy for us to seek that quick fix. We can turn to smartphones the moment we feel bored. Play video games when we are frustrated. Turn on the TV when we get home from work. Live in the online world if we are afraid of rejection and meeting the real person. We can be addicted to comfort which actually diminishes our capacities to deal skillfully with the disappointments and difficulties of the average, everyday life.

Some people may ask, “Is happiness the key to success?”

Not really! Not if you don’t know how to face negative emotions and deal with stress.

Don’t get me wrong! Happiness has many benefits. Happier people:

  • Experience better health
  • Have happier marriages
  • Earn more money
  • Are promoted more often by their bosses
  • Receive better evaluations at work
  • Are more likely to be social, exploratory, and inventive

The problem is when we confuse happiness with success or self-worth. Happiness is the subjective experience of contentment and well-being. It’s an emotional state, same as sadness, anger, or frustration. Feeling negative emotions is a normal human experience.

One time I facilitated a group and asked the participants to come up with words to describe positive feelings and negative feelings. They were only able to come up with a few words to describe positive feelings, like happy, joy, excited, comfortable, good, peaceful, and great. But they came up with many more words to describe negative feelings, like hurt, sad, anxious, worried, annoyed, irritated, frustrated, angry, humiliated, down, low, lonely, bored, jealous, envy, etc. The list goes on and on.

Why we have so many words to describe negative emotions?

Because it’s important to pay attention to negative emotions. They’re an important part of our healthy emotional architecture. Although they can be messy, unpleasant, and sometimes problematic, negative emotions are also very useful. All emotions carry information. Like the postman with a registered mail, emotions knock on our doors and have very important messages for us.

If we are feeling happy, that means everything is ok right now. No need to worry or be anxiously on alert. If we are feeling bad, that means things are not right for us and we need to find out what it is wrong and deal with it. People who try desperately to escape, conceal and avoid negative states, miss out on all this valuable information.

For example:

You come to the workplace, and your supervisor looks at you and doesn’t say “Hello” to you like he or she normally does. For some reason you feel tense inside. If you stay with this discomfort, you may find out the company is not doing well and a potential layoff is in the air.

Negative emotions can serve us well if we are paying attention. The key to benefiting from experiencing negative emotions is distress tolerance.

Our body is able to shift negative emotions when it is getting too tense. Negative emotions won’t kill us if we stay with it. Part of being a fully functioning human being is to see the positive in the negative, to be able to use those negative states when it is to our advantage to do so.

If the negative emotions are too tense and hard to deal with, you probably need talk to a good therapist or a counsellor to help you.