How to deal with negative emotions

A systematic process of how emotions are made and where you can intervene.

Desired outcome

To feel more positive and raise your emotional intelligence

Level of Difficulty

Medium

Time to Result

20 minutes

To use this Personal Growth Intervention effectively, it’s best that we first look at a (very) simplified process map of how emotions are made.

Once we understand the basics of this process, we will address where you can intervene to deal with your negative emotions. 

Why do you have negative emotions?

You can find a process map of how emotions are made below. Hover over the tooltips for more information about each step. The process is also briefly outlined below the flowchart.

Flowchart what are emotions

Brief description of this process:

  • 1

    Sensory input reaches the brain

    This input comes from two sources:
    1) From outside = exteroception: through the five physical senses (smell, taste, touch, sound, sight).
    2) From inside = interoception: input from organs, tissues, hormones, immune system...

  • 2

    The brain tries to make sense of it all

    The brain must make meaning of all this input to discern between what to focus on and what to ignore. The brain makes e-valuations: simulations and predictions based on incoming electric signals.

  • 3

    Let's create shortcuts!

    To run these processes, the brain creates mental models based on what other people do, past experiences... This saves energy and prevents your brain from crashing from the ever-moving flow of input it receives. These mental constructs are often not accurate, they are highly personal, and they run below the threshold of conscious awareness.

  • 4

    Your overall emotional state

    Your overall emotional state is the result of all the evaluations that your brain and body have made. This state determines your perception of reality. There is no such thing as purely objective perception: The perception is always colored by the mental models of the perceiver.

  • 5

    + / 0 / -

    An overall positive evaluation leads to a positive emotional state.
    An overall neutral evaluation leads to a neutral emotional state.
    An overall negative evaluation leads to a negative emotional state.

  • 6

    This is how I 'feel'

    The label you put on your 'feelings' is your personal description of the outcome of this process. This is the part that you are 'consciously aware' of.

Now that we understand the basic process of how emotions are made a bit better, we can look at different interventions.

What follows is a holistic approach to dealing with negative emotions and encompasses both cliché interventions as well as practices you may be less familiar with.

Disclaimer: there are medical conditions that lead to significant emotional distress through different pathways. Although the interventions below will likely contribute to the alleviation of these illnesses, they might have to be combined with medical treatment.

How to deal with negative emotions?

The interventions can be roughly divided into 3 groups:

  1. Interventions that deal with the output of the process. These interventions decrease the power these emotions hold over you when they occur.
  2. Interventions that deal with the input of the process. These interventions send input to the brain and body to over-power or express negative emotions.
  3. Interventions that deal with the throughput of the process. These interventions change the system that produces negative emotions. 

This can be visualized as such:

How to deal with negative emotions flowchart step 2
How to deal with negative emotions - where you can intervene in the process.

Remarks:

  • Some of the interventions affect more than one phase (input, throughput, output). 

  • These interventions can be used to prevent negative emotions from occurring (or occur with less power) to begin with, but this Personal Growth Intervention starts from the assumption that you are already experiencing negative emotions and want to deal with them.

1. Interventions dealing with the output of the process

Dealing with negative emotions Step 2 - output

Characteristics:

Interventions:

  • Use meditation or other mindfulness practices (such as letting go and surrendering). This will cause you to witness and objectify the emotion as something that you have v.s. as who you are. If you distance yourself from your emotion, the feeling will lose a lot of its power.
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal .
  • Talk to somebody about how you’re feeling. This may literally and figuratively help to get the negativity “off your chest.”
    See also this intervention.

2. Interventions dealing with the input of the process

Characteristics:

Interventions to influence your internal triggers:

Interventions to influence your external triggers:

  • take a hot bath or shower
  • get a massage
  • avoid noisy or crowded spaces
  • avoid people and situations that could trigger more negativity
  • go into nature
  • expose yourself to natural light
  • read/watch an enjoyable book or movie
  • listen to your favorite music
  • connect with friends
  • play with a pet

3. Interventions dealing with the throughput of the process

Characteristics:

Many forms of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are based on this principle.

Interventions:

  • Write out (or better: draw out) on a piece of paper 1) what triggers activated -> 2) your existing mental models to -> 3) cause your brain and body to produce these negative feelings.
  • Keep a journal about your emotional experiences and try to become better at describing your emotional states in more detail. This increases your emotional intelligence.
  • From your journal entries, create a list of triggers that are important for you to feel emotionally healthy.

4. Intervention stacking

Combining multiple interventions is the most powerful way to deal with negative emotions. For example, if you feel anxious, you could:

  1. Use mindfulness to create space between yourself and the feeling, and let it go (output intervention).
  2. Go for a walk in nature while listening to your favorite music or affirmations (input interventions).
  3. Journal about the triggers that make you feel anxious and why your brain perceives them as a threat (throughput intervention).

If you practice these interventions deliberately, you will become much less reactive and more responsive to potentially stressful situations… and this is how you move forward in the long run.

Conclusion

Everyone experiences negative emotions in their life. These energetic states arise when your mental models of how the world should be don’t match your experience of reality or when your body is out of balance.

To deal with negative emotions, it’s essential to understand the basics of the process of how they are made. 

Next, you can intervene in the different phases of this process. You can learn to manage the triggers that cause negative emotions or practice letting go of a negative state to make yourself feel better. 

However, these actions often don’t solve the root cause of the problem. More introspection and an increase in awareness are essential to keep moving forward.

Different interventions will resonate with different people. Create a list of what works for you to feel emotionally healthy. Try to stack interventions for more powerful results.

Sometimes additional treatments, such as antidepressants or other medications, may be necessary. Don’t hesitate to ask for professional help if you need it.

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