Letting our brains work with a bad feeling

Feb 18, 2018 | Change, Stress

Often we prevent the brain from doing its job with a feeling. If we let it, the brain will sort it out in a process that might just resolve it and is better for our health.

Make the feeling go away, please

When we have a bad feeling, we naturally just want it to go away. But we often go about it the wrong way.

When I was feeling bad or sick as a child, my mom would tell me to “think positive” or to do something to get my mind off of how I was feeling.

My mom’s strategy makes logical sense (though didn’t much appreciate it at the time ;), and is a common one.

If we think our feelings control us, or if we don’t know what to do with them, we tend to employ coping strategies like distraction, denial, or suppression.

Coping strategies can work, but only for a time. They don’t change, shift or remove the feeling. They just take it out of our cognitive or thinking brain.

Negative emotions, unlike thoughts, are created in a deeper part of the brain and stay in our nervous system until they are processed.

The good news is: we have more control over bad feelings than we think! We can change or even release them. Not only that, but you can use them to improve your self-regulation and your brain!

The brain’s job with feelings

The brain works very hard for us every day, processing all kinds of information, directing our attention and guiding our actions, all with the ultimate goal of protecting us from harm.

Every waking moment, the brain is trying to anticipate what’s coming next based on current external and internal stimuli and past memories, and regulating the body’s resources accordingly.

If you see a dog running at you, the brain will quickly interpret whether that dog is a threat (e.g. is it showing its teeth, or is the tail wagging?), and if it decides it is, will stimulate stress hormones. Your breathing and heart rate quicken to help prepare your escape.

A similar process unfolds when emotions are created. In response to an external information being received (e.g., seeing or hearing something), the insula, in the lower limbic brain, notices sensations in the body (e.g., a tightness in the chest) and quickly directs that to the prefrontal cortex, the higher cognitive brain, for processing and understanding. This process is called interoception.

Lisa Barrett Feldman at Northeastern University, who has studied the process, says that our emotions are essentially what our brains make of them. (For more on this scientific concept, read this post.)

Unprocessed feelings

When we turn away from a bad feeling in an effort to “think positive” or do something to take our mind off of it, we prevent the cognitive brain from fully processing the information it’s been sent from the limbic brain. We don’t let our brain finish the job of working out how to think or what to do about the feeling that’s there (poor brain).

This is when we might turn to food, social media, alcohol or other distractions to keep the uncomfortable feeling out of our cognitive brain.

Benefits of processing bad feelings

If you can allow the feeling long enough to observe it, the cognitive brain, which takes longer to process information than the emotional brain, can begin to analyze it and better discern what it’s dealing with. This ability to clarify a feeling, called emotional granularity, can be learned and practiced and helps the brain decipher how to allocate resources and direct behavior.

Emotional granularity can help you resolve bad feelings. For instance, it’s realizing not just that you’re generally in a bad mood, but that you’re exhausted from a lack of sleep, and stressed and frustrated because you agreed to do something that you do not want to give your time to do.

Without this realization, you just keep going about your bad day, and it might get worse the closer you get to needing do that thing you agreed to do. You might also stay up late to get it all done or lose sleep because of the stress. Then the bad feeling gets worse (and everything and everyone starts to annoy you). But by realizing you’re tired and stressed, and figuring out why, you slow down, sort out your mistake and consider what, if anything, to do. You might apologetically decline or otherwise renegotiate the task. You might slow down, relax, and go to bed early.

Sometimes, even when we think we know what the feeling is and why, it’s helpful to stop and clarify it. Sometimes we make assumptions or jump to conclusions (based on our patterns) that don’t apply.

Research shows that if we can improve our emotional granularity, which we can do with practice, we can also improve our ability to control our emotions and to respond to stress. We become less reactive, and we even boost our immune system.

What’s more, research also shows that putting negative feelings into words, which of course helps to clarify them, calms down the emotional brain and helps activate the cognitive brain.

So working with negative emotions not only builds stronger connections between the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain for a more integrated and higher functioning brain, but it actually helps to build resilience.

How to work with a “bad feeling”

Warning: working with a bad feeling can be uncomfortable – but you know that, so if you’re still reading, then you’re ready to improve your emotional granularity and your brain!

  1. Slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling inside the body. What are the signals the insula is picking up: faster heart rate, tightness in the chest, throat or shoulders, general fatigue…?
  2. Take some slow, deep breaths through the nose. (To learn more about how the breath can help your brain, check out this post.)
  3. Observe the feelings with a kind of neutral curiosity, not judging them as “bad” or something to get rid off.
  4. Scan for the thoughts and information that are linking with the feelings. Are they accurate or habitual? What other information is there about the feeling or situation? Notice here if the mind starts to wander off to unrelated or past issues; if so, bring it back to focus on the present.
  5. Find a word or words to describe the emotion. Give the brain some time for this. Try this 2-3 times to see if you can further clarify it. Let the answer settle in without judging it.
  6. Ask what’s most important to you right now.
  7. Decide what, if anything, you want to do.

You may not get to some definitive action. Don’t worry, that’s not necessarily the goal. Even if you simply decide to “wait and see” or “take it easy,” your brain will be happier and healthier because you let it do it’s job of connecting to the cognitive brain to sort out a response.

So no matter the result, if you practice understanding your bad feelings, you will integrate your brain, increase your ability to regulate your emotions, improve your stress response, and maybe even your ability to stay healthy during flu season!

If you’d like some help in the sorting, give me a shout.

Photo by Jacob Townsend on Unsplash.


  1. Raquel Holguin-Gramajo

    I have experienced that putting words to those bad feelings helps so much and if we are not aware of them and recognize them then its easy to tense up and retain them and keep me frustrated and stressed. So in my awareness I have found that it is so helpful way to make a new road to handle those negative feelings also if I have my spouse listen to my words for those bad feelings or anyone that I confide in and be responsive to those words then I get so much support from that. Just knowing that I have put it out there to release it and someone was receive it feels great.

    • Jen

      Excellent work, Raquel! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Tammy Davis

    Thank you for the article. I will have to try these technique next time I have negative emotions. Thanks again for sharing


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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