Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's Okay to Be Sad

Most people are astonished to learn this simple fact, but it's one of the best pieces of advice I have to pass on: It's okay to be sad...or angry, or scared, or frustrated, or even bored. Usually when we feel any negative emotion we do our best to get rid of it or push it away. But trying not to feel something often makes you feel it even more intensely - kind of like when you try not to think about pink elephants. The more you tell yourself that you are not going to think about pink elephants, that pink elephants are not going to pop into your head the more you are going to think about pink elephants.

So, here's a quick list of ways that you can learn to accept feelings as they come and go:

1) Remember that you don't have to be positive all of the time. Life is full of unexpected turns and unwelcome changes. Over and over again people come to visit me and tell me that they are not coping well with some new turn of events. This was especially true when I was working with cancer patients who had many well intentioned friends and family members who would tell them such things as they would lose their battle with cancer if they did not stay positive! This is despite the fact that there is no evidence that staying positive during cancer changes the likelihood that you will survive. Coping strategies and therapy can help a great deal with the emotional suffering and fear you experience when you have cancer, but several studies have shown that improved coping does not necessarily extend your life. So, go ahead and let yourself feel what you are feeling.

2) Putting on a brave face is exhausting. Trying to pretend that you are not feeling scared or sad when you are drains you of energy. While it is okay to take a break from your worries and visit with a friend who cheers you up or go to a movie always trying to put aside your feelings is a lot of work. So, relax and let yourself feel sad.

3) You will stop crying eventually. Many people also worry that once they start crying they will never stop. This is rarely the case and there is evidence that having a good cry can make you feel better by producing endorphins, clearing stress hormones out of your body through the tears and releasing emotional tension. You may have a bit of a headache after a good cry (because of changes in intracranial pressure) but for the most part you will feel better. If you truly can't stop crying, or are crying most of the day, that's a different kind of problem (e.g., could be depression or even a physical problem like thyroid disease, hormonal imbalance or low iron) and you should go see your doctor for a complete evaluation and learn coping strategies that can help when you are experiencing ups and downs do to a medical condition.

4) There is no such thing as a negative emotion.
It's really too bad that we often see "negative" emotions as the enemy. In fact, I don't really think of any feeling as negative. Emotions are really information about whether things are going well or if we need to be making some course corrections. If I'm happy and relaxed, I know things are going well and I can proceed as planned. However, if I'm angry or anxious, that tells me that I need to make some changes either by challenging my thoughts or doing things differently. The bottom line is feelings are incredibly useful and I wouldn't give them up for anything - even the so-called negative ones. Anger let's you know when you are being taken advantage of (like when you receive a backhanded complement from a co-worker) and fear keeps you from walking down unsafe dark alleys and even burnout lets you know when you've have been doing too much and not taking care of yourself. Listening to your feelings can help you make smart decisions and using them as guides will help you live in a healthy and balanced way.

5) This too shall pass. We often forget that that emotions are not forever. Sometimes when I work with people who are depressed I get them to keep a log of how depressed they felt during the day or over the course of a week. Without fail, they are always surprised to see how variable their feelings are - in the morning their depression may have been 8/10, at lunch with a co-worker 3/10, at dinner 4/10 and 6/10 at bedtime. This is true for all of us, even when we are going through something really difficult like a death or a divorce. Remembering that, like a flu or a cold, your negative feelings are not forever - that they too shall pass - is surprisingly helpful.

Embracing all of your feelings, good or bad, can help you ride the ups and downs of life and help you move through obstacles with grace and ease. It does take some practice, but with a little patience and compassion for yourself, it is definitely worth the effort.

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