No one is looking to have bad feelings.

But in the course of just a morning, we might experience a range of feelings like frustration with a person who isn’t listening, anxiety over being late, annoyance at losing a parking spot, anger over a disagreement, and sadness or fear over world events.

Feelings are happening all the time, but often we’re not fully aware of them.

At the end of the day, when we finally slow down, we might notice that we feel unsettled, unable to sleep, or that all we want to do is zone out in front of the t.v.

While it’s typical, and understandable, not paying attention to our feelings can cause further suffering. And it’s a missed opportunity to retrain the brain for greater self-regulation and well-being.

Dismissing feelings

Historically both science and culture have focused on thinking over feelings, head over heart (for more on this dilemma, click here). 

Education and society also value cognitive intelligence over emotional intelligence- though there is a slow movement toward the latter.

Plus, we’ve got our own reasons not to deal with “bad” feelings:

  • Who wants to intentionally give attention to something that’s uncomfortable?
  • We’re all so busy problem-solving and getting stuff done, who has time for working with emotions?
  • How is dealing with a negative feeling going to help me anyway? I just need to get over it!

But ignoring bad feelings can have some big downsides to our brains, nervous systems and health.

Meanwhile, the benefits of paying attention to them are enormous, including calming the nervous system, improving self-regulation, decision-making and health.

Feelings are always there

Feelings are always there and exist to guide our decisions and actions, so we may as well use them to our advantage.

Though we’re not usually aware of it, the brain is constantly receiving and interpreting stimuli to determine what we are feeling. Along with processing external data (e.g. sights and sounds), the brain processes internal signals from the body such as a racing heart, flushed cheeks, tight jaw, quick and shallow breath. 

In this quick processing, the brain also links to past experiences and pre-existing beliefs in order to interpret the data and determine the emotion. Thus, as Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University says, our emotions are essentially what our brains make of them. (For more on how the brain creates emotions, click here.)

For instance, let’s say you’ve previously been ignored or dismissed by a person. You’re speaking with a colleague and this person walks into the room. Your heart starts to pound and your jaw gets tight. The brain interprets this data, links it to past experience, and a feeling of annoyance or anger arises. Suddenly, though the person may have friendly intentions, you quickly decide not to acknowledge the person.

Feelings linger in the body

Feelings have physical and chemical reactions in the body.

Though we don’t want to ruminate on a bad feeling, if we pay no attention to it at all, we don’t let our brain finish the job of understanding and deciding what to do about it.

“Bad” feelings tend to activate the sympathetic nervous system which is associated with hyper-aroused states and stress.

When these states continue, so do the physical effects such as increases in cortisol and heart rate, strained breathing, and decreases in digestion and immune functioning. (Meanwhile “good” feelings tend to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and have the opposite effects.)

We might turn to food, social media, alcohol or other distractions to keep the mind off the uncomfortable feeling. Over time, we might notice aches and pains in the body, or we get sick.

All feelings can be helpful

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

If you can allow the feeling long enough to observe it, the brain can begin to analyze it and better discern what’s there. This ability to clarify a feeling, called emotional granularity, can be learned and practiced and helps the brain decipher how to allocate our precious energy and direct our behavior.

As Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says, “Feelings are information.” (For more, see Brackett’s latest book Permission to Feel.) We do not need to judge them as good or bad, but merely as information from our nervous system to guide our decisions and behavior. In that sense, all feelings can be helpful.

In observing the feeling with curiosity instead of judgment, we might also recognize that a feeling is unnecessary or based on false assumptions. For instance, in the case of the person who previously dismissed us, we might realize that s/he actually waved a hand and smiled at us, but we were quick to be annoyed based on prior experience.

And if we can put “bad” feelings into words, research shows that this actually calms down the amygdala, part of the limbic brain associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system (e.g., the fight/flight/freeze response), and activates the prefrontal cortex which is associated with self-regulation, higher-level cognition and decision-making.

So working with negative emotions not only informs our behavior, but it builds stronger connections between the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain for a more integrated and higher functioning brain.

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. Emotional granularity can not only help you resolve bad feelings and guide your behavior, but research shows that it can improve our ability to control our emotions and to respond to stress. We become less reactive, and we even boost our immune system.

How to make a “bad” feeling helpful (in 6 steps)

Sometimes it’s not practical to work with a feeling in the moment. Sometimes you don’t recognize there’s something to work with until after it arises.

No problem. Any feelings of consequence are likely going to be swirling in the back of the mind and sitting somewhere in the body later in the day. When you have a moment, take stock.

The key is to approach the information with curiosity, not judging or even trying to explain it away. As Brackett says, be an “emotion scientist” not a judge. 

(1) Slow down and pay attention to what you’re feeling inside the body. What are the signals the brain is getting from the body: faster heart rate, tightness in the chest, throat or shoulders, general fatigue…? Taking some slow, deep breaths through the nose can help calm the nervous system and help you to pay attention in the moment. (To learn more about how the breath can help your brain, check out this post.)

(2) Notice any thoughts that you’re having. What is the narrative in your head about the situation? Do the thoughts link to prior experience or beliefs? Are they true or just assumptions?

(3) Observe the feelings with a kind of neutral curiosity, not judging them as “bad” or something to get rid off.

(4) 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.

(5) Let them be for a minute, and notice if anything shifts.

(6) See what you want to do – if anything – now that you have greater awareness about the feeling. Maybe you can choose a different perspective; maybe not. Maybe you decide to do nothing – let it pass. Either way the brain and nervous system feel better because it’s not confused, distracted or unsettled about it anymore. A decision to do nothing is still a decision and provides some closure.

It’s not about getting to any particular result, but rather just bringing greater awareness to the feelings that are already happening beneath the surface.

No matter the result, if you simply observe and get curious about your feelings – good and bad – you will integrate your brain, increase your ability to regulate your emotions, improve your stress response, and maybe even fight off that flu that’s going around!

Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final.  – Rainer Maria Rilke

Photo by Ángel López on Unsplash
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