Negative emotions are states of mind when you experience anger, frustration, guilt, nervousness, or fear. These emotions cause stress (basically an inability of the body or mind to process anything) and a significant disturbance in our heart rate variability. When a negative emotion occurs for a long time and/or frequently, it can seriously damage our emotional and physical health.
For that reason, it is crucial to learn about them, recognize the negative effects, and stimulate positive emotions instead.
Are negative emotions wrong?
We all experience emotions from an early age. When we grow up as a baby and toddlers, we have to deal with frustrations that cause emotions. Think of a bottle of nice warm milk that’s just out of reach or a scary old man grimacing at a toddler at the checkout.
As soon as we go to school, we are trained to suppress our emotions. We learn how to fit into society, pretty much like a straitjacket. We learn that emotions don’t serve us and that they get in the way of how we function in daily life. Certainly, negative emotions are not appreciated in our western society. Expressions of anger, frustration, and fear are the first to be unlearned in our Western education system so that we can “function well” later in society.
As adolescents and adults, we constantly struggle to accommodate these emotions, as we have learned that they are “unhealthy.” This suppression gives an almost continuous form of stress that’s mainly on a subconscious level.
Our inability to respond to our emotions often results in unhealthy behavior. Our negative feelings are often made up for rationalizations to still deal with our feelings. We do not consider the impact this has on our mental and physiological state or the long-term implications of the suppression of these emotions.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at our emotions – especially negative ones – what causes them, their effects, and how we can use them to create a greater sense of well-being.
Differences in emotions and feelings
It’s important to distinguish between what is an emotion and what is a feeling. While the two are closely related, there is indeed a difference.
Emotions: Emotions are physical reactions that come from our reptilian brain. They have traditionally been designed to protect us from external dangers. They come from areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These areas are responsible for the production of biochemical reactions that directly affect our physical state.
Emotions are encoded in our DNA and serve as a way to help us respond quickly to any environmental threats, much like our fight or flight response. The amygdala also plays a role in the release of neurotransmitters that are essential for memory, which is why emotional memories are often stronger and easier to recall. Consider the NLP anchoring technique.
Emotions are considerably more powerful than feelings, as they are anchored in our DNA, while feelings are stored in our rational brain based on experiences and memories. Emotions directly affect our blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, facial expressions, and body language.
Feelings: Emotions are actually the precursors of feelings, which are more like a response to our emotions. While emotions represent a general experience in humans, feelings are more subjective than our personal experiences and interpretations (perceptual filters) of our outer world.
Our feelings arise from the brain’s neocortical areas and thus determine how we are going to respond to our emotions. Because they are so subjective, they cannot be measured in the same way as emotions. In summary, you can see it like this:
event -> emotion -> perceptual filters -> feelings -> reaction
Psychologists have identified a range of human emotions and their definitions over the years. Psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the pioneers in the field of human emotions, has identified seventeen basic emotions:
• Sensory pleasure
If you read through the list of Ekman’s basic emotions, it’s quite easy to determine which emotions are the “negative” emotions. Although we now label these as “negative”, they are all – so really one by one – functional. These negative ones are ingrained in our DNA for a reason and serve to protect us from dangerous and threatening situations.
What’s more important is understanding when and why negative emotions can arise, and they can serve us. Of course, it is mainly about how our perceptual filters influence our feelings.
Psychology of emotions
Within the psychology of emotions, several emotions are diametrical to each other. For example, we can classify the main emotions as:
• Sadness is the opposite of joy
• Anticipation is the opposite of surprise
• Anger is the opposite of fear
• Disgust is the opposite of trust
These opposites are housed in The Wheel of Plutchik. In the wheel, the core emotion decreases as you move outward on the wheel. Plutchik also used color to represent the intensity of the emotion: the darker the color, the more intense.
This schematic representation helps to provide insight into how our emotions manifest, how they fluctuate, and how they develop, side by side or independently.
Shaver et al. (1987) and later Parrott (2001) proposed a “tree” of emotions that split emotions into primary, secondary, and tertiary dimensions. This scheme includes six primary emotions (love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear), with accompanying emotions that develop at the secondary level and further at the tertiary level. For example, if the primary emotion is joy, the secondary emotions may be cheerfulness and optimism, and the tertiary level may include pleasure, triumph, or hope.
Research and studies: are negative emotions healthy?
The more research that has been conducted into emotions, the more insight has been gained into their functioning. There’s a distinction between positive and negative emotions, the impact of both on our mental well-being and physical well-being.
Negative emotions are not necessarily “bad”. They serve us a purpose, of course. For example, the negative emotion of fear serves to protect us from possible imminent danger and is necessary to prompt us to take action.
Negative emotions indeed cause stress short-term stress. When someone experiences negative emotions for a longer period or frequently, it means that the adrenal glands – which produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline – have to work overtime. In the long term, this can lead to adrenal fatigue (pre-stage) and ultimately burnout. Because cortisol is also a potent natural anti-inflammatory hormone, the adrenals’ exhaustion will often cause an inflammatory response in the body.
Whether negative emotions are unhealthy, the answer may be: it depends on your reaction and how you deal with them rationally. As we have learned, our emotions pass through our perceptual filters, and our feelings arise. In many cases, our response to the experiences and observations gives the outcome and functionality of our negative emotions a negative outcome. In many cases, these are deeply rooted belief systems that have deep feelings anchored in them.
What are Unhealthy Emotions?
Of course, we mean “unhealthy feelings,” which are based on our experiences and perceptions of unhealthy emotions.
Healthy Negative Emotions: Worry, sadness, healthy anger or annoyance, regret, disappointment, healthy jealousy. These kinds of emotions help you as a motivation, help you be more resilient in life, and help you put your frustrations in perspective (for example, it’s not all that bad).
Unhealthy Negative Emotions: Fear, depression, anger, guilt, shame, hurt, unhealthy jealousy.
Healthy negative emotions are a natural response to difficult and complex events in our lives, situations that are difficult to process at a certain moment. We just feel a little overwhelmed.
Examples of negative emotions
As we discussed earlier, negative emotions are completely normal and functional as well. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the positive ones. So they are very important to be able to put everything in perspective. At the same time, if you find that you consistently tend to lose yourself in a particular emotion – especially a negative one – it is worth investigating why.
I have summarized 8 of the most common negative emotions and the reasons why they can arise:
Have you ever experienced a situation when a co-worker played you at work? Then what happened? The steam came out of your ears? Did veins appear on your temples? Did your blood pressure rise, and did you feel like exploding? These are the typical phenomena of someone who flares up in anger. Your body reacts to things that are not going well, and it is an attempt to rectify that.
When we get angry, we often scream, shake from the adrenaline, and feel like throwing and crashing stuff. Especially at these moments, it’s a good idea to investigate why you get so angry and what more positive responses are available.
Do you have a colleague who is constantly drumming on his desk? Do you have a housemate who structurally lets you vacuum the house? While you have a healthy dose of tolerance, you will undoubtedly reach the limit one day to get fed up and get annoyed. Annoyance is actually a weaker form of anger. Although this form of anger is less intense, it does come from a similar thought process: something has happened, or someone does something that you wish they would not do. And you have no control over it.
Fear is often mentioned as one of the most important basic emotions because it is closely related to our sense of self-preservation. It is an evolved response to warn us of dangerous situations or unexpected obstacles. We are not afraid of feeling sad. On the contrary, it is there to help us navigate successfully without being exposed to potential danger. By embracing the fear emotion and exploring why it arises, you can proactively prepare to face challenges.
As with fear, anxiety tries to warn us of potential threats and dangers. In fact, anxiety is a mild form of anxiety. It is often viewed as a negative emotion because a fearful attitude undermines judgment and our ability to act.
A sense of anxiety allows us to better recognize faces with angry or fearful expressions. Worried people are alert in their responsiveness and, therefore, better able to counter perceived threats.
In terms of disappointment, you will likely feel sad. Grief arises when we have sabotaged ourselves, delivered a lower performance than we expected, or when someone close to us does not meet our expectations (for example, you expected an invitation that you did not receive). Being dissatisfied with ourselves, our performance, or the behavior of someone else around us. A feeling of sadness can be particularly valuable to experience because it shows us what we do or don’t think is important in life. So it teaches us to see things in perspective. It can be a great catalyst to pursue change in our behavior.
Guilt is a complex emotion. We can experience it with ourselves and past behavior that we wish had not happened and how our behavior affects the people around us. Guilt is often referred to as a “moral emotion” and can be another powerful catalyst for encouraging us to make changes in our lives.
Like guilt, apathy can be a complex emotion. If you no longer feel enthusiasm, motivation, or interest in the things you have always been interested in or enjoyed, it may be the result of apathy. Like anger, apathy can develop when we lose control of a situation. Still, instead of getting angry out of dissatisfaction, we strive for a more passive-aggressive expression of our frustration.
Despair can be a paralyzing emotion. Certainly, when you have not realized your goal after several fruitless attempts, despair can take over.
Despair is an emotion that arises when our efforts fail to produce the desired results. It is often the result of too high expectations that we had for ourselves. Despair gives us an excuse to give up our desired goals, and it boils down to a tactic for self-preservation. Despair can actually be a useful reminder to take a break and regroup before continuing in pursuit of a goal.
Dealing with negative emotions
When you feel overcome by negative emotions that make you feel uncomfortable, be aware that if you are aware of this process:
event -> emotion -> perceptual filters -> feelings -> reaction
While this process is happening, you can intervene with your ratio in time before you get the unpleasant feeling. By being aware of your perceptual filters and their influence on your feelings manifest, you can intervene at this point.
Your perceptual filters are based on past experiences, learned behaviors, and core beliefs that you often inherited from your parents from early childhood. When you find yourself in a situation where you are likely to develop negative feelings, it’s always good to ask yourself the following questions:
• To what extent is the current situation representative of the norms and values that I apply?
• Am I not setting the bar too high for myself?
• Are my expectations with that other person perhaps a little too high?
• Do I fear failure?
• Is my anxiety in proportion to how damaging this situation can be to me?
• What’s in it for me if my fear turns out to be unfounded?
These are just a few questions you can ask yourself as an interruption of the process that mainly takes place on an unconscious level. By being aware of your thinking patterns, your reaction patterns, and the feelings that arise from them, you are, after some practice, largely able to direct your emotions. When something happens to us, we tend to respond primarily, “Damn, I didn’t plan it that way!” Just count to 5 and be ahead of your primary (re)action.
In this way, you can reprogram your “train of thought” and turn emotions such as anger, frustration, fear, and despair into a positive ones. You have to wait a few seconds before responding.
Heart coherence training for negative emotions
Negative emotions – basically a form of stress – and heart coherence are two opposites. In a state of heart coherence, our body and mind work together in harmony and are free from stress, you feel relaxed, and you experience a feeling of happiness. In a state of heart coherence, the heartbeat, breathing, and brain work together in perfect harmony.
Research from HeartMath Institute shows that this state is easy to achieve with some practice. People who control this process benefit from more efficient physiological processes, greater emotional stability, increased mental clarity, and improved cognitive function. In short, if we can achieve heart coherence, everything in our body works better, and we have better health, both physical and emotional, and thus better stress resilience.
The HeartMath exercises help you to achieve heart coherence and to overcome feelings of stress. Besides, the HeartMath equipment can measure the degree of heart coherence in real-time so that you know when you are stress-free.