Research is now showing more and more the relationship between the emotional brain and the experience of pain. In fact, the emotional brain (cortico-limbic system) has been shown to amplify acute pain and to sustain chronic pain levels.
What this means is that negative emotions can cause us to feel more pain than there actually is true cause for and they can make us feel this pain for much longer than we would need to normally if we weren’t feeling these negative emotions.
If you do a quick search for “negative emotions” on the internet, you come across a wide array of articles and commentary on what negative emotions are and ‘how to control them’ or ‘how to replace negative emotions with positive ones’.
Anger, disgust, worry, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, self-criticism, fear, shame, guilt or rejection are just a handful of what most would consider “negative emotions”.
I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a negative emotion. What we might call a negative emotion is an emotion that we feel in a moment where we’re unable to be ok with feeling it; We resist feeling it. This creates an uneasy feeling inside that doesn’t feel good. And this “negative” feeling we attribute to the emotion that we’re having a hard time with. In a sense we blame the emotion for making us not feel good inside.
Feeling emotions is the result of a flood of neuropeptides throughout our bodies. Trying to stop the flow of these neuropeptides is like trying to stop the flow of Niagara Falls. It’s not only impossible, it’s unnatural and creates a divide between the body and the mind.
Emotions are meant to be felt and expressed, like a big tidal wave. It comes, it hits the shore and then it’s gone. One of the reasons we feel some emotions are negative is because we might feel them more than we should. Feeling any emotion all the time is undesirable. You might think “oh wait a minute, feeling joy all the time is not a negative thing”. Conceptually you’d be right. But I wouldn’t want to feel joy 24/7. What if you saw an injustice happening, would joy be the most appropriate emotion to be feeling at that time? Or would anger or disgust be a more motivating force?
Emotions are meant to motivate us to action. Peace, joy and love are a lovely backdrop upon which to experience the fulness of emotions. If we weren’t supposed to feel certain emotions, we wouldn’t have the neurochemistry to create them.
Another reason we will resist feeling emotions is when we feel them at a time that we deem inappropriate. If you’re in a public space and you feel like crying or shouting or expressing the emotion somehow, we will suppress that emotion because we deem it an inappropriate time to express it. Over the years I’ve talked with many patients about how they need to find a time to be alone, either in the car or when no one else is home to be able to feel and express the emotions that are bottled up inside them.
Maybe you’ve learned that expressing emotions can get you into trouble or that expressing emotions is not what our family does. And so we regard emotions in general or certain emotions as “negative”.
If you think that there are “negative emotions” and that in order to keep yourself from feeling them, you need to talk or think yourself out of them with “positive thinking” then you’re just playing a mind game. And if when you feel what you regard as a “negative emotion” you go to your meditation mat in order to get rid of this ugly feeling inside then you’re looking for a bandaid solution.
If however you look at emotions through a more holistic lens, you’ll see that what really determines whether or not an emotion is negative or positive is through the meaning we give it.
And meaning is something that we can change.
So if you want to be healthier emotionally and physically, start examining the meaning that you give to your emotions. It could just change your life.