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Feeling a little…negative? Learn to use it to your advantage

Negative emotions can be hard-hitting, but they serve an important purpose

We can often feel like we’re at the mercy of our emotions, especially when they’re negative and interrupt our everyday life. During these times it may help you to remember that emotions are, on the most basic level, here to help us. Emotions (even unpleasant ones) serve a purpose.

Our emotions help us respond to changes in our physical and social circumstances. And so, though it might seem paradoxical, we can actually use our negative emotions to help us feel, and do, better. But to do so, first,  we must understand where the so-called “hidden” benefits of negative emotions lie.

So where does the positive come in?

Negative emotions are usually sending us information that something is not quite right, and for this reason it is important that we feel them. Feeling a negative emotion is the first step to being able to process what we are experiencing.

Narrow and detailed thinking

Research shows that in comparison to feeling positive, feeling negative leads to a narrower style of information processing. This makes it easier for us to hone in on small details to spot danger or possible mistakes.

When feeling negative, it may be advantageous to turn your attention towards tasks that require high vigilance and attention to detail, such as proofreading, contract writing or reviews. The feel-good factor of having accomplished some of these tasks in a more efficient mindset will soon start to kick in and before you know it, you may be on your way to feeling good again.

More deliberative decision-making

Negative emotional states are also linked to more deliberative decision-making. So they’re the perfect opportunity to work through complex decisions we might have been avoiding (such as ahem, which pension plan to sign up for…or how to organize that massive presentation you have coming up).

Take the selection of job candidates, for example, which is a process often (and very unfortunately) plagued by bias. The systematic processing that negative moods allow for may help us to avoid being influenced by external, and potentially irrelevant factors, such as how similar the person we have just interviewed was to us. They can also help us to avoid stereotyping. So Human Resources teams everywhere, take note, feeling negative before interviewing or going over resumes, may actually be to candidates’ benefit, oddly enough.

Adding richness and meaning to our lives

Another key benefit of negative emotions is their important contribution to the richness of our lives and their ability to provide us with a sense of meaning. A life where we only feel positive emotions (while it sounds amazing on the surface) would be pretty bland. Often, we learn important lessons from our negative experiences.

Some window blinds letting in some rays of light through

Nadiya Ploschenko @still_loony

By generating a lower happiness “reference point” negative emotions can also make us more appreciative of our positive experiences. Think about how grateful you might feel at your lack of pain after a very painful headache or how good it feels to experience those first rays of sunshine after a long winter. Focusing on savoring positive emotions may be particularly useful at this juncture since we may be more inclined to feel grateful for feeling positive after having endured the pain of feeling negative.

Where’s the positive in feeling negative?

Emotions can be separated into affective (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) components. The affective part refers to our immediate response or feelings towards things, people, and events. The cognitive part refers to our evaluation of those feelings – what we think about them. While we have no control over the former, we have definite influence on the latter.

Reframing how we feel about our negative emotions by paying attention to their positive qualities doesn’t just help us feel better about them, but can also help us manage them more effectively.

Here are three steps to help you practice acceptance and healthy management of negative emotions as they come up (and we all know they will) based on what you’ve just learnt.

1. Notice negative emotions when they arise and remember that they serve an important, adaptive purpose

2. Think of the ways in which you might be able to use your negative feelings to do things that will benefit you (e.g. focus on a task that requires high vigilance or think through an important decision)

3. Remember that feeling negative can make you appreciate positive moments more. And how we evaluate our negative emotions plays an important role in getting us to a more positive state. Make use of the Constructive worry and Challenge your thoughts programs in Foundations to help alleviate any of your uncomfortable negative emotions so that you can reach a more positive state. Once you’re there, use positive thinking techniques to help you savor the moment (and your mood).

What negative emotions do you frequently experience? Can these tips help you to use them for good? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.