The key to preventing depression and staying mentally healthy.
What we should know about our emotions
How we deal with our inner world drives everything.Susan David
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist at Harvard Medical School, an expert on human behaviour, and co-founder of the Institute of Coaching. She is the author of Emotional Agility, the concept that navigates us in how to deal with our emotions effectively in an increasingly complex world. The book became the #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller, recommended by Forbes, awarded by the New York Times and the Washington Post, translated into 26 languages.
Emotional denial, suppression, and depression
We live in a society that is in a great deal of denial — a society that avoids confronting global issues until it’s impossible to avoid them anymore, and our emotions are an inherent part of this problem.
Our culture is, in fact, all built on the ‘feel-good’ effect and encourages us to only cultivate the emotions that are clearly marked as good or positive, while denying — suppressing, avoiding, shaming, and rejecting the ones that are not easy to handle, also called bad or negative emotions. These could be sadness, anger, jealousy, fear, frustration, apathy, uneasiness, or others. This culture of false positivity that we are currently cultivating is however unsustainable to persist.
The conventional view of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, is rigid. And rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic. We need greater levels of emotional agility for true resilience and thriving.Susan David
In a survey Susan conducted in 2018 with over 70,000 participants, it was found that one-third of respondents either;
a.) judge themselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” or
b.) actively look to push aside these feelings.
The consequence of us, as a society, locking down the so-called negative emotions that are absolutely natural, while marking them as bad or even toxic, is that we’re losing contact with the world as it is. We’re also losing the capacity to be able to deal with real-life and the problems it brings naturally. And that leads to an array of issues, the first most prominent of which is depression.
Depression, according to the statement from the World Health Organization (WHO), is now the leading cause of disability globally, affecting over 264 million people worldwide — it even outruns cancer or heart disease as formally the most prevalent diseases in our population.
This report and the importance of the subject couldn’t be more accurate now as we face almost one year of the coronavirus pandemic that’s still not under control in a vast majority of developed countries, and it further triggers cases of depression rapidly rising worldwide as per the specialists’ reports.
Just during the first wave of the pandemics, the rate of depression in the UK had doubled, and tripled in the US. And although the lockdown period, as documented in the UK, contributed to a decrease of the documented depression cases in the UK, the more accurate statistics mapping the last few months of this evolution worldwide are yet to be produced.
Depression not only becomes the number one mental health problem worldwide nowadays, but it signifies that we have a long way to go to make progress in the state of our mental health and our inner world of emotions.
The fact is, if we want to avoid this state turning into a global mental health crisis in the next couple of months as the pandemic lasts, we need to act quickly and responsibly.
At a time of greater complexity, unprecedented technological, political, and economic change, we are seeing how people’s tendency is more and more to lock down into rigid responses to their emotions. And rigid denial doesn’t work. It’s unsustainable.Susan David
Emotional denial is the main reason why so many new persons reported to have suffered from depression throughout 2020.
As the volume of our unprocessed emotions increases to the escalation level where they cannot be suppressed anymore, it creates an explosion of overwhelm that manifests as depression.
Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification.Susan David
You might think that you’re in control of the unwanted emotions you have when you ignore them, but that is not true. What happens instead is that the emotions start controlling you. They grow stronger in you, day by day, and eventually, the pain that you gather inside comes out elevated. It always surfaces ultimately, however, in destructive ways.
Our war on tough emotions and ourselves that we’ve created — where we judge and shame ourselves and others, even our close loved ones, for expressing feelings that are considered unwanted, simply has to stop.
How to deal with tough emotions
There are three steps that help us process our strong, tough emotions fully and effectively.
1. Emotional acceptance
The first step in the process that’s good for our mental health, is accepting all our emotions for what they are.
The fact is that every emotion there is, whether the ‘feel good’ or ‘feel bad’ one, is inevitable and valuable for us — our personal growth and psychological evolution.
Tough emotions specifically, represent an important and unavoidable part of life.
We cannot experience reality in its fullness — enjoy it, appreciate it, and learn from it, without the role the tough emotions play in it.
You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. These are all crucial for us to lead a meaningful life.Susan David
Acceptance of our emotions lies in allowing ourselves to have them, first of all, and allowing ourselves to feel them, without trying to immediately reject, avoid, and suppress them. When you feel a strong — tough emotion, allow yourself to feel it.
A great way to open ourselves to first acknowledging our authentic feelings and them processing them is through creative activities such as journaling, therapeutical drawing, painting; or hand-making.
The particularly effective one for me is daily or weekly journaling, and drawing sacred geometry intuitively.
These activities are special as they invite our subconscious mind to get involved in the process, and that enables us to start noticing the true feelings that lie deep inside us.
The radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness. But emotional agility is more than just an acceptance of emotions.Susan David
2. Describing emotions accurately
When working with our tough emotions, what’s especially critical is the accuracy in which we express them and particularly, the worlds we use for it.
When we name our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings.Susan David
The first awareness is that we’re not our emotions, we do own them.
Therefore, instead of associating ourselves with the emotion and stating “I am angry”, or “I am sad”, we should use more precise ways to express our emotions by saying “I am feeling angry,” or “I am feeling sadness.”
And then, try to understand the emotion you have more. Just sit with the emotion for a while and observe it. Explore it. Learn about it through your own experience of acknowledging and feeling the emotion.
It’s very important to only focus on how it feels for us to have the specific emotion, not how it thinks to be — without incorporating our logical mind that would trigger other mental processes such as rationalizing, or creating stories around this emotion that would trigger us to act impulsively. If we involve our logical mind, we could talk ourselves out of the feeling, persuading ourselves that it’s insignificant, that we don’t (want to) feel it and then reject and suppress it.
- How does it feel for me to have this emotion?
- Where can I feel it in my body?
- What kind of reaction is it causing in my body?
When we concentrate on where we feel the emotion, we’re bringing the focus back to our body, rather than the mind, to understand how it reacts to the specific emotion, and it’s our body that helps us with emotional processing.
Let’s imagine that I experienced something that triggered an emotion of anger in me. When this happens, I acknowledge how I feel and stay still with this emotion. I’d go — ‘I am feeling upset’ or ‘I am feeling angry right now.’
Then, I observe how it feels for me to experience anger. I focus on my body — how it reacts to my anger and where I feel anger in my body.
I noticed that I can feel anger in my head and belly. It manifests as uneasiness and heaviness in both of them. My head feels heavy and my mind gets blurred, it becomes impulsive and restless — somehow unable to function well. There’s also restlessness throughout my body as if all my organs were shaken and I couldn’t feel them properly.
The emotions that we have tell us essential information about ourselves — Susan refers to this as a data source. They tell us what we care about and what is important to us because we tend to have a strong emotional reaction towards what is important to us and what we care about, not what feels indifferent.
3. Emotional release
This is the third and final step in handling our tough emotions.
Staying still with them without taking any action — just exploring them and allowing ourselves to feel, is an essential part of healthy emotional processing.
Then, feel into your body and ask yourself:
4. What would help me to release this emotion?
Let your body guide you, it reacts instinctively. If it feels an urge to take some pacifying action, follow it.
When I feel anger, my body tells me immediately that I need more oxygen. I start taking deep breaths instinctively and feel a need to sit down for a moment and close my eyes. Or to have a glass of water. I realized through working with many such emotions, that closing my eyes and deep breathing is essential to processing almost any heavy emotion I’ve got.
By focusing on our body and allowing it to take the lead, we’re capable to process the emotion we have in a non-destructive way. And after a while, it’d feel as if the emotion is slowly subsiding — getting less and less notable.
By focusing on our body and allowing it to take the lead, we’re able to process the emotion in a non-destructive way.
In releasing our emotions there and then, we avoid an emotional overwhelm — gathering unprocessed heavy emotions inside us and carrying them around as we move from one situation to another while they’d grow stronger. It’s almost like emptying the glass every time before we’d put something else in it and allow it to overflow, creating a destructive leakage.
In psychology, it’s equivalent to emptying our emotional bucket (called an energy field in mindfulness) before too many heavy emotions would gather there — unprocessed, and later, cause an inevitable explosion.
Finally, you can ask yourself these questions:
5. What is this emotion trying to tell me about myself?
6. What do I learn about myself thanks to this emotion? And even,
7. What action step can I take, based on this emotion, to get closer to my values?
If you feel rage when you read the news, that rage is a signpost, perhaps, that you value equity and fairness — and an opportunity to take active steps to shape your life in that direction. When we are open to difficult emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values-aligned.Susan David
From my own experience with exploring various tough emotions this way, I recognize that they speak up for what is important for me and what I truly value. Sometimes it’s what I don’t see happening around me, and that’s how my emotional reaction is triggered. But at different times, I don’t act in accordance with my own principles and values, and my tough emotion experienced after makes me aware of just that.
What I can improve to align myself with the things — values, behaviour, and actions, that are essential for me as a person. In the end, I’d say that our emotions — if we take it from the right angle, are really opportunities for us to get to know ourselves better and to create a better life for ourselves, aligned to who we truly are as people.
Emotions are opportunities for us to get to know ourselves better and to create a life that’s aligned to who we are.
Our society, build on the quick feel-good effect, has taught us to block out — label, judge, shame and reject the emotions that are absolutely natural to experience and vital for our personal growth and psychological evolution.
If we are in denial of our most natural — tough emotions, life becomes difficult to face. At the same time, emotions that are pushed aside or ignored only grow stronger and eventually surface anyway, however in destructive ways.
The truly effective way of dealing with our emotions is to unlearn this toxic pattern and to accept all our emotions for what they are. This guarantees that we maintain contact with the world as it is, and retain our capacity to deal with real-life situations while staying mentally healthy.
Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and the courage to take values-connected steps.Susan David
Every emotion is inevitable and intrinsically valuable for us. Tough emotions specifically are an invaluable part of life. There’s no way that we can experience reality in its fullness without the role the tough emotions play in it.
We accept our emotions by allowing ourselves to have them — to feel them fully, without trying to immediately avoid, suppress and reject them. Then, it’s important to maintain accuracy in which we understand and describe our tough emotions. And allow the emotion to go without pressure.
We’re not our emotions, but they’re our data source that possesses important information about ourselves — what we care for and what is important for us. They help us to better understand ourselves and our values.
Allowing our emotions to come and go naturally, without restricting them, is the key to our overall wellbeing and processing our emotions properly, in a way that’s beneficial for our mental health.
The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to normal human emotions.Susan David