How To Cope With Negative Emotions


Why Avoidance Doesn’t Work


Most of us don’t like having negative emotions. We hate feeling lonely, sad, anxious, or angry and we find ways to avoid feeling this way, whether it be by putting off tasks we know we need to do or avoiding conversations we know we need to have.

How do you cope when you're overwhelmed?

How do you cope when you’re overwhelmed?

If you find negative emotions completely overwhelming – whether because you were taught early in life that negative emotions are ‘bad’ or because you weren’t exposed to the types of experiences growing up that would help you to learn how to cope with distress – you might have had to learn other additional ways to avoid negative emotion, like using alcohol, binge eating, or self-harm to distract you from your distress.

On the surface, each of these coping strategies look quite different but they all have one thing in common – they help you to avoid negative emotion. But the catch-22 of avoidance is this – it might help you to cope with your distress in the short-term, but longer-term it doesn’t help you to resolve the issue that’s triggered your distress and it can sometimes create additional distress.

Drinking – for example – might help you to cope with your anxiety in social situations, but it can also strain relationships and make you feel worse about yourself longer-term. Likewise, binge eating might help to distract you from loneliness at the time, but it can trigger feelings of self-disgust and hopelessness afterwards.

Avoidance won’t solve your problems. It’s only a temporary fix. The solution? Learn to sit with your distress.

A barrier to this might be your current attitudes towards negative emotions. Emotion myths like –

My emotions are out of my control.

I will feel like this forever.

Showing emotion is weak.

But consider this…

Feeling out of control is not the same as being out of control. It’s not possible to control your emotions completely and never feel upset or angry, but it is possible to learn ways to cope so that the intensity of these emotions is less.

Emotions are like waves – they come and go. It’s impossible to feel anxious/sad/lonely for forever. When you’re distressed it might feel like the emotion will never pass, but it always will. The more we try to avoid negative emotion, the more intense the feeling will become. Accepting how we feel will help to circumvent this.

Everyone feels angry/sad/lonely/anxious sometimes. We’re human beings – not robots. Experiencing negative emotions makes you human – it doesn’t make you weak.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist registrar who completed her postgraduate clinical training at the University of New South Wales. She is interested in anxiety and mood disorders across the lifespan and uses cognitive-behavioural and other evidence-based strategies to help people achieve positive change in their lives.


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