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Dr. Mayo: Managing Negative Emotions

Dr. Mayo continues her series on emotions


by Dr Nicolle Mayo - May 23, 2019

As a new mom, I have had a lot more intense ups and downs lately. I expect a lot of myself, as I am sure many mothers do. Even looking beyond motherhood, generally many of us have high expectations of ourselves. We allow little room for error. We expect perfection. We expect too much of others, and are let down easily. We have a difficult time handling life when we let people close to us down.

Whatever our experience, one or all of these can leave us with, not only, unrealistic expectations, but negative emotions. The majority of us don’t like to feel these. We push them aside, thinking that we can ignore them away. Truth is, negative emotions are necessary. We cannot numb them and still selectively feel positive emotions. We need them in order to fully experience the most joyous times according to Brené Brown, a social worker and researcher. Positive and negative emotions come in one package. They are messengers trying to tell us something important. We need to listen to them, but that doesn’t mean we need to act on them or take them as fact.

In my last feature, I talked about one strategy of increasing emotional IQ by identifying and differentiating primary versus secondary emotions. Today, I am going to talk about how to manage negative emotions.

The other day, I was upset about an event that happened that I wasn’t expecting. I started to get angry. Before long, I realized that my anger was not helping the situation. In fact, it wasn’t even anger eating at me, it was hurt. And, it was making me think negatively about myself and others around me. When I realized this, I thought, “I need to change something”… indeed, I was wasting time and energy, until I was able to sit with my emotions, which later helped me to see things from a new perspective.

With managing negative emotions, it’s important to identify and acknowledge whatever emotion is causing turmoil. Taking this step back to pause before acting can save a lot of negative thoughts and unhealthy actions, like withdrawal, denial, bullying, self-harm, and substance use.

The pause can help us identify what exactly is going on in our body that is connected to that emotion. Are we tense in our shoulders? Stomach in knots? Clenching our jaw? Fists? Wanting to eat a whole bag of chips? A lot of times, our negative emotions can feel really intense. Noticing these cues can help us take the next step.

Engaging in a temporary distraction can tone down the intensity of our emotions long enough for us to be able to sort through them a short while later. Going for a walk, cleaning, watching a funny video, eating a healthy snack, getting a drink of water are a few examples of distractions that can take the intensity down.

Once we are in a place where we can sort through our feelings, it’s time to get curious. Brene Brown suggests asking yourself some questions about where the feeling came from and why. Sometimes writing these down make it a little easier. Writing down our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and actions based on the event can help us connect our feeling to a current issue or past baggage. Depending on what our answers are to this can dictate the next questions we ask ourselves.

Emotions by themselves are not fact, and they can involve inaccurate portrayals of what just happened. So, it’s important to ask ourselves what the facts are versus what our assumptions are in the situation. Sometimes these two things can get muddled together, making it important to re-visit this question more than once. Figuring out what we need to know about others involved in the situation helps with developing a new perspective. This gets us to the root of the feeling (aka primary emotion), and even what part we played in the situation. It’s easy blame others and to forget our role when we are heated, but when we look back with a calmed demeanor; it’s easier to see our own responsibility in the situation. It might even foster more empathy towards others as we start to see things from their perspective.

Sitting with hard emotions isn’t easy. It takes identifying the emotion, acknowledgement, perhaps a short-term distraction to take away some of the initial intensity, before finally getting curious about the how’s and why’s, our own assumptions (which are not fact), and our role in a situation to finally sort through it. Although this may not be something we prefer to do, it can save us in the long run. Working through emotions, can increase life satisfaction, decrease acute and chronic illness, and make our relationships stronger. Be inspired, check-in with all of your emotions today.


Videography: Ethan Chabala

Video Editing: Ethan Chabala

Writing: Dr Nicolle Mayo


Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by UPMC Susquehanna, Citizens & Northern Bank

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