Monday 20 November 2017

The good in feeling bad

Negative emotions have hidden benefits

When we identify negative emotions, we can harness them to our advantage. Photo posed
When we identify negative emotions, we can harness them to our advantage. Photo posed
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Those who have experience of Alcoholics Anonymous will probably be familiar with the HALT acronym. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired and it's a reminder that when in these states, we should halt, and not make any sudden movements or rash decisions.

Likewise, many of us are aware of the emotional biases that certain feelings engender. We know not to shop when we're sad, rebound when we're heartbroken or dial when we're drunk.

Negative emotions, we are taught, have negative consequences, and we're best to bide our time until the feeling passes. But what about the positive impact of negative emotions?

In recent weeks, I've written about the importance of feeling our feelings. Becoming comfortable with uncomfortable emotions promotes healing, but it also has a lesser-discussed advantage: when we identify negative emotions, we can harness them to our advantage.

This isn't to be confused with bright-sided thinking, which is when we sublimate negative feelings into a positive mental attitude. On the contrary, harnessing our negative emotions requires us to sit into uncomfortable feelings while capitalising on the unique sensations that arise. Think of a songwriter penning a ballad when he's sad or an activist launching a campaign when she's angry. There are hidden benefits to all negative emotions. Here are just a few of them...

When you're feeling sad

There is evidence to suggest that sadness improves our social judgment and makes us less likely to be influenced by cognitive biases like the Halo Effect. We tend to shirk out of social situations and isolate ourselves when we're feeling sad but, paradoxically, this emotional state can be helpful for navigating scenarios in which we have to make choices based on a person's character - think interviewing for a housemate or an employee.

When you're feeling angry

Anger promotes emotional honesty, which can make us say things that we might later regret. However, if you struggle with speaking up or saying no, this emotional state can be used as the impetus to finally voice your opinion in areas where you have long kept schtum. There is a big difference between destructive and constructive anger. The latter can be harnessed and transformed into a decisive, level-headed energy that motivates us to effect change. Use the fire in your belly to air grievances, negotiate better conditions or ask for a raise.

When you're feeling impatient

The late poet WH Auden once mused that there is "perhaps only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return". Impatience breeds impulsiveness and can often lead to rash decisions. However, while we learn to practise patience around the matter of concern, the urgent energy can be used as the impetus to deal with more trivial matters. Think about where 'functional impulsivity' could be of benefit in your life, and use the energy to make a phone call you have been dreading or start a project you've been putting off.

When you're feeling frustrated

Frustration can make us feel like pulling down the shutters and giving up. Yet it can also motivate us to change our approach and try a new tack. Behavioural economist Tim Harford delivered a fascinating TED talk last year in which he used the story behind the best-selling solo piano album of all time to explain how frustration can inspire us to come up with creative solutions. The moral of his story: challenges and limitations can expand our horizons, if we work with them rather than against them.

When you're feeling bored

Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when he had the epiphany about gravitational force. Archimedes was sitting in the bath when he shouted 'Eureka!' We think of boredom as something that must be overcome at once, yet studies show that the emotional state can be the birthplace of creativity. When we think of boredom as a period of passive reflection, we are more likely to use the emotional state to connect the dots and come up with novel solutions to problems.

When you're feeling rejected

Rejection, whether romantic, platonic, social or organisational, is rooted in our almost tribal need to belong. Hence when we feel cast off or cast out, we are often too ashamed to reach out to others who may be able to help us rationalise the experience. However, when we share our experiences with others, we open the door to deeper bonding and increased emotional intimacy. Think of rejection as an opportunity to reconnect with the people who accept you just as you are.

When you're feeling anxious

Nervous energy can feel overwhelming, especially when it doesn't have a direction. When we're feeling anxious, we lose focus and tend to switch mindlessly between tasks. The trick, then, to harnessing nervous energy is to choose tasks that we would usually find dull - think ironing, light gardening and general admin. This strategy has a dual effect: it helps us finish tasks that we would normally not have the compulsion to start, while the trance-like repetition has a calming effect on the parasympathetic nervous system.

When you're feeling lonely

There are two types of loneliness. The first is chronic and persistent and leads to all sorts of physical and psychological symptoms which can only be alleviated by social connection. The other type is temporary and situational - say the first few months in a new country or the first few weeks after a break-up. Conventional wisdom tells us that we 'gotta keep busy' but loneliness also provides us with a unique opportunity to build resilience by becoming comfortable in our own company.

Health & Living

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life