Think Positive? The potential healing role of negative thoughts and feelings

Have you ever had a trying day and had someone say the following?
“Stay positive!”
“Cheer up!”
 
Well-meaning family members, friends, and coworkers provide this advice with the best of intentions. Everyday, all of us are bombarded with media of all types tempting us with the promise of eternal bliss, if we could only think more positively, look on the bright side, keep calm and carry on (which by the way was a slogan used by the British Army during World War II to promote Stoicism and emotional detachment among its young soldiers), etc., etc….

But what if we can’t do a whole lot to change negative thoughts?

And more importantly, what if negative thoughts and feelings like sadness, anger, and frustration actually help us live lives with more meaning? What if negativity ( I’m using the term loosely) could actually help us live healthier, more meaningful lives with purpose, love, and connection?

Still not convinced?

Here are some things I’ve learned from my clinical work with people struggling with depression.

  •  Suppressing negative thoughts makes them more powerful

Here’s a little experiment I’d like you to try. Think about a big, moist, freshly based slice of chocolate cake ( or a piece of pizza, ice cream, veggie burger, whatever your favorite food is). Imagine how it looks, smells, and tastes.
Now, distract yourself with another activity for a few minutes. Do whatever you can to not think about chocolate cake. If you’re like most of us, attempting to control your thoughts is an ineffective long-term solution. Worse yet, when we are unsuccessful in our question to win the wrestling match with our thoughts, guilt, shame, and intense frustration with ourselves may set in increasing our depression and anxiety. Letting go of the stranglehold over our emotions helps free us from their burden and although it’s impossible to never feel discomfort again, We may be able to live with them with a greater sense of peace.

 

  • While waiting for bliss you may miss out on moments of everyday beauty.   

Lester Freamon sure has a way of getting to the bottom of things.

I’m sure all of us have seen images all over media selling shoes, trackers, workout plans, and diets that lure us in with the promise, either explicit or subtle, of eternal bliss if we purchase their diet plan, workout plan, vacation package, or sometimes, mental health service. These images are usually of young, slim, able-bodied people in groups laughing, or alone, meditating or practicing yoga on a mountaintop and are often economically inaccessible to most people.

Now, don’t get my wrong. I integrate movement and mindfulness into my daily routine and encourage clients to do the same, and often suggest less expensive ways to do so. Activities that bring us into our bodies and increase our positive emotions and experiences are essential to combating depression, anxiety, and other difficulties with mood regulation. The challenges come in with our expectations. If we exercise, meditate, or do any other activity to help us increase our positive emotions, and help us feel more connected to our bodies and environment, and increase our acceptance (NOT approval, if we are seeking to change our lives) of where we are with self-compassion, these activities can be extremely powerful anecdotes to the hopelessness, shame, and inertia that can accompany depression. If we pursue these activities with the expectation that the one accomplishment, that one smaller dress or pant size, or that one workout will create happiness, that’s when we may fall into the trap Lester talks about above and we miss out on the smaller, ordinary moments that remind us of the people who love us and what gives life meaning.

  • Denying ourselves the opportunity to experience negative emotions deprives us of opportunities for growth.

Sadness and anger are often reasonable and normal responses to living in a troubled world. When we have opportunities to experience the full range of emotions (happiness, sadness, anger) with people we trust and who see and accept us fully, this can lead to healing from depression and anxiety. Many folks have the common misunderstanding that a defining feature of depression is sadness. However, in my clinical work, I have found that clients who are depressed are not distressed by feeling sad, but by not being able to feel at all. The clinical term for this condition is anhedonia, and it is common in people who have lost the ability to experience a full range of emotions. Often, recovery from depression begins not with learning how to repress sadness, but by creating room for it in relationships with trusting people who can tolerate and support the individual in their recovery. These people are often therapists, but may also be friends, family members, spouses, recovery sponsors, clergy, teachers, or coaches.

Depression is often a debilitating illness and the feelings and thoughts that accompany it can be almost impossible to bear. People resort to doing whatever they can in desperation to relieve their pain, turning to drugs, damaging relationships, self-harm, and even suicide as solutions and are doing the best their can in the process. What if we could walk away from the struggle altogether? What if we could, over time, let go of the battle we engage in to force our thoughts and feelings to change, and in the process, the shame, guilt, and self-resentment that often goes along with it?

I’m not saying the process is easy, and it’s always easier to blog about something than it is to take action. In future blogs, I’ll talk about my favorite resources for people struggling with depression and other mood-related conditions like bipolar disorder. If you feel like depression is making life unbearable and you’re not sure you can keep yourself safe, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to be connected with a trained crisis counselor to help you find reasons why this world would be worse without you in it and to help you find reasons to keep on living.

 

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