Are Negative Emotions Bad for Your Health?

A little while back, I received this comment over email:

“I keep being told that  negative emotions put stress on the body and the cells.  That I need to think positive or I won’t heal!  Then I get scared and add another emotion.”

Sigh, I wish people would stop saying that. Especially people who consider themselves healers in one way or another.

It’s a really short-sighted thing to say and shows a complete misunderstanding of how emotions impact the body.

I know, I’m taking a strong stance here. That’s because I hear of so many people who as a result of this “advice” end up doing the opposite of what will help them heal.

 

 

Here are some important things to understand:

1. There are two kinds of emotions

There are emotions that are generated intuitively, from within the body. Then there are emotions that are generated as a result of how you think.

You can read more about that in this article.

 

2. When all you do is think, you think thinking is all there is

Some (read: many) people spend so much time exclusively living in their head that the only emotions that they are aware of are the ones that are a result of how they think.

These people then tell you that the only thing creating your emotions is your thoughts. Happier thoughts, happier feelings.

There is some truth to this. If you keep telling yourself that the world is a bad place, people are awful and there is no hope for a happy life, then of course you will feel terrible. Duh.

So, do stop telling yourself negative things that you can’t be sure of in the first place. You don’t know what the whole world is like, you don’t know what all people are like, and you can’t presume to know that there is no hope. That’s just fear masquerading as arrogance.

 

3. Noticing negative thoughts can be a huge breakthrough

Even if you do spend most of your time living in your head, that doesn’t mean that you are aware of your thoughts and the impact they are having.

So, when you have a negative tape running in your head about how stupid or terrible everything is… that is definitely the first place to start if you want to feel better (and improve your health).

Becoming aware that you have such a negative running commentary in the first place can be a huge breakthrough. But, that doesn’t explain all your feelings.

 

4. Intuitive emotions are meaningful, they are not garbage to dispose of

When emotions are generated intuitively within the body, they are there to tell you something important. They are not there to stress your cells or affect your health. They are there because they are trying to nudge you into a healthier direction.

You can imagine these emotions as helpful mail. They keep being delivered to you for you to “read”.

Now, what happens when you avoid your mail? You just let it all stack up and pretend it doesn’t exist. Does is magically go away? Do your tax receipts and credit card statements go away if you don’t open those envelopes?

Just as avoiding credit card statements and pretending you have money you don’t have will mess up your life, intuitive emotions that are ignored will also mess up your health.

Yet, in a way, many health issues are just a way for the emotion to speak louder.

Just as your bank calling you is a louder way to let you know that you have unpaid bills.

Now, if you’re in denial, you might pretend that the thing stressing you is the “stupid bank that keeps calling”, but we’re smart enough here to see that that’s not the real problem. That’s just blaming the bank for your own spending habits.

Well, intuitive emotions work the same way. They often get blamed for being inconvenient and a nuisance, but ultimately they are there to remind you of what is important and to help you get back on track.

Your body is designed to deal with emotions.

It’s even designed to help you dissociate for a while when things are too traumatic to deal with. But that doesn’t mean you can healthily stay in denial forever. There is an expiration date on your body’s ability to “store your emotional mail” for you. At some point, you HAVE to open the envelopes, or else you’ll start to notice in other ways (health, wellness, mood, energy levels) that something isn’t working.

Your body runs out of storage space at some point. That’s when you lose your ability to soldier on and bounce back. That’s when you have to sit down and take time out to process all that unopened emotional mail.

 

drawing of sick person in bed with lots of emotions

 

Chronic stress is the real problem. Not all “negative” emotions are chronic stress. 

The short of it is: all kinds of chronic stress negatively impact the body. Note: chronic.

So that means that if the running commentary in your head is always (a.k.a. chronically) negative, then yes, that will stress you out and will impact your health.

Yet, if you have an intuitive emotion pop up and you feel it and hear what it’s trying to tell you… then it will disappear.

If you think to yourself: “that guy is an asshole, I’m not going to sit next to him!” then too you have acknowledged and effectively dealt with the negativity. Chances are, you forget about him and his asshole ways quickly because you’re not sitting next to him and so don’t have to put up with him.

However, if you keep saying to yourself “he is SUCH an asshole, but I could not possibly move to a different seat”… then you end up making that negative thinking (and feeling) chronic. You’ll be frustrated with this guy the whole time instead of being able to forget about him.

In other words, when you feel and listen to your feelings and then take appropriate action, the feelings disappear and they do not become chronic stressors. Hence, they do not negatively impact your body.

 

But, isn’t positivity supposed to be good?

What happens when you avoid your feelings, suppress them, deny them or try to “overwrite” them with “positive” thoughts? Then the feelings go unheard and they will become chronic. Basically, they stay put until they are felt and heard and taken seriously.

The more you fight, suppress, deny and avoid your intuitive feelings, the more stress you are actually adding to your life.

In other words, stop hiding from the mail. Sit down, open it, and read (feel) what it says. Then do something.

 

So, the two things that affect your health negatively are:

1. You keep making negative statements in your head about things you really don’t know the answer to.

Instead of accepting the uncertainty, you make up stories about this or that being this or that way for sure. All that negativity adds a heap of negative feelings that are not even true.

2. You avoid dealing with your intuitive emotions by trying (too) hard to be positive.

 

Let’s examine those two reasons in more detail.

 

1. The Trap of Negativity

You keep making negative statements in your head about things you really don’t know the answer to. Instead of accepting the uncertainty, you make up stories about this or that being this or that way for sure. All that negativity adds a heap of negative feelings that are not even true.

In a way, you externalise your actual feelings. You blame them on the state of the world.

 

You don’t say: I feel afraid.

Instead you say: The world is a terrifying place.

 

You don’t say: I feel angry and unheard.

Instead you say: The world is a mean place and nobody listens to you!

 

You don’t say: I feel sad and powerless.

Instead you say: the world is a depressing place and there is nothing anybody can do to change it.

How to Reverse the Trap of Negativity

When you start to notice the mental commentary in your head, you can make an effort to flip the thoughts to find the real emotions underneath. If the world / people in general are so terrible, then which emotions does that make you feel?

Getting back to the emotions, gets you out of the negative thinking loop.

It helps to understand how the negative thinking loop works.

What the negative thinking loop does is assign blame and point away from your own feelings. So instead of saying you feel sad or hopeless, you make up a story about how it’s inevitable that you feel that way because the world / people are so horrible.

When you do that, you’re doing a few things:

  1. You make how you feel someone else’s “fault”.
  2. Because it’s their fault, there is nothing you can do.
  3. Because there is nothing you can do, you feel more powerless and hopeless. (And less responsible for your life, which to some people can feel like a great relief, even though it’s disempowering).
  4. When you focus on whose fault it is again, you feel angry. This makes you feel more powerfull. So you keep focusing on the story about how it’s someone else’s fault. You feel more and more angry.

All this anger puts stress on your body and doesn’t reflect how you really feel deep down. Remember, all this started because you feel sad and hopeless.

The sadness and hopelessness now get buried under an avalanche of negative thoughts, finger pointing, anger, blame and powerlessness. As a result, all of this now becomes chronic.

The way out? Get to the vulnerable feelings underneath, the sadness and hopelessness and learn how to feel and understand those. When you hear, acknowledge and take action honouring those deepest, vulnerable feelings, then all that stress clears up.

2. The Trap of Positivity

The second way that your health is negatively affected is when you in any way avoid dealing with your intuitive emotions by trying hard to be positive.

Your intuitive emotions are the emotions that are “just there”. There are no thoughts that created them. They arise on their own in response to the direction your life is going in. They want to let you know how things are affecting you so that you can take appropriate action and course-correct if necessary.

These emotions are your friends, not your enemies.

Yet, if you adhere to the idea that you must be positive at all costs, then you can end up burying these feelings under false positive beliefs.

So, when you feel sad, instead of letting yourself cry and wondering what is going on in your life that makes you feel this way, instead of that you tell yourself: “cheer up! It’s a bright sunny day! I have nothing to feel sad about!”

You practice gratitude, when what you really need is to let yourself feel how you’re really feeling.

Do you see how this doesn’t work? It’s like putting a band-aid over a heart-attack and trying to convince yourself you’re fine. That’s actually dangerous for your health!

Instead of listening to the pain and doing something to prevent it from happening again, you try to cover it up.

And while you cover it up with positivity, the pain will persists just as much as when you were to cover it up with blame.

So even though this second strategy seems a lot better than the first, it is actually more similar than not.

Sure, when you cover everything up with positivity, then at least you don’t add more false negativity to you life. So in that way, it is a little healthier than the first strategy.

But the big downside is that now that you’ve buried your feelings under a layer of happy frosting, you have no clue how you really feel and can end up running towards more danger instead of away from it.

 

Why False Positivity is Dangerous

Someone at work bites you in the arm and you tell yourself “oh, they’re just having a bad day, and it’s just a scratch!”. So you don’t tell your boss and continue on as if nothing happened. You keep going in to work, you keep interacting with this bite-happy colleague.

Then one day your arm gets infected. (I know, it’s along the lines of “if dogs could wear suits and go to an office” but bear with me, crazy examples have a way of being easier to remember and understand).

When you finally go to the ER, the doctor asks you how on earth you got 120 bitemarks. You say: “Oh, it’s nothing. My colleague is going through a rough time that’s all. Sometimes he can’t control himself. Anyway, there are so many people who are starving, what do I have to complain about?”

Then the doctor informs you he has to cut off your arm to save your life. Yay for positivity.

I know this is a ridiculous example. But can you see how ignoring pain and pretending everything is fine can be dangerous?

That’s how false positivity can negatively affect your health. You create feel-good stories in your head that make you go back again and again to the source of abuse in your life.

 

 

Instead of telling someone the first time: “You bit me! I am reporting this! If you do it again then I don’t want you near me anymore for any reason. Then you can do your own darn report analysis, I’m not helping you out anymore.”

Instead you essentially tell the biter: “No problem, I can handle it, you keep doing you, never mind me!”

The biter in your life can be a family member, a friend, a work-situation you refuse to feel and address. It can be a stressor you don’t want to “rock the boat” for. It can be a heartfelt desire you keep ignoring. It can be that you keep pushing yourself because letting yourself feel how tired you are is scary.

When we ignore the pain and cover it up with false positivity we are telling ourselves and anyone else: “no problem, I can handle it. Go ahead and give me more”.

 

So when someone says:

“I keep being told that  negative emotions put stress on the body and the cells.  That I need to think positive or I won’t heal!  Then I get scared and add another emotion.”

Do you see how that is actually a very normal response to what is in fact ridiculous advice?

If anything, that fear is worth listening to. What exactly is endangering your well-being right now, and what action steps do you need to take?

 

 

P.S. If you’re thinking “yeah sure, but I don’t know WHAT TO DO with all these feelings” then become a member of the Happy Sensitive Library. In the Library, I have a whole section on how to deal with difficult feelings. Just look under the “Difficult Feelings” section. It includes:

  • Explanations on the meaning of specific emotions like grief and powerlessness.
  • How-to steps for dealing with all kinds of emotions, ranging from anger to hopelessness.
  • Each emotion has its own user manual, you can’t deal with all of them in the same way!

Befriending your own emotions in this way helps you to:

  • Be more balanced and grounded, feel calmer.
  • Be more empowered and have a clearer sense of what to do next.
  • Feel more confident that you can handle things even if you can’t see far ahead.
  • Be more assertive without being agressive or a doormat.

You’ll find specific explanations and steps for dealing with the tricky ins and outs of: anger, rage, grief, sadness, powerlessness, depression, anxiety, shame, guilt fear and panic.

 

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