‘Stop feeling down’ or ‘put that frown upside down’ might be highly counterproductive, a new study reports. Feeling pressure about negative feelings makes people feel even worse.

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It’s OK to feel bad

A study that was conducted at UC Berkeley and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed the link between emotional acceptance and mental health in over 1,300 adults. The results suggest that people who don’t want to accept their dark emotions feel more emotional stress, which in turn degrades their mental health.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said study senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The opposite also stands true: people who acknowledged their bleak feelings, disappointment, and resentment, reported fewer mood disorder symptoms. This seems to indicate what has been suggested in previous studies: that acceptance is linked to greater mental and emotional health — even when it is acceptance of negative things.

“It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being,” said study lead author Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”

To reach these conclusions, three separate studies were carried out. The studies compensated for age, gender, socio-economic status and other demographic variables. After all, accepting your negative feelings is much easier when you lead a luxurious life, and researchers wanted to take that out of the equation.

In the first study, 1,000 participants filled out surveys rating how much they agree with statements such as “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” As a general rule, the study showed that those who didn’t feel bad about feeling bad showed higher levels of well-being. It makes so much simple sense that it’s hard to even consider otherwise. If you add an extra thing that makes you feel bad, you’ll feel worse — and sometimes, you’re feeling bad about feeling bad. It’s like a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle from which it can be very difficult to escape. In the second study, 150 participants had to deliver a three-minute recorded speech, as part of a mock job application. The ones who felt negatively about their feelings reported more distress. Lastly, more than 200 people journaled about their most taxing experiences over a two-week period. A similar trend emerged: the more people hate their negative emotions, the more unpleasant experiences they have.

Researchers didn’t try to directly explain why this happens, though it’s quite easy to speculate. Giving a lot of extra attention to negative emotions instead of simply waving them by can’t help, and having an additional reason to feel bad about yourself makes things worse.

The way to go seems to be acknowledging your bleak inner emotions, but not spending too much time on them. Of course, some people naturally deal with these ups and downs better than others. However, education and culture likely play a huge role in how people deal with their emotions and their mental health, and teaching acceptance from an early age might make all the difference.

“By asking parents about their attitudes about their children’s emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children’s mental health,” Mauss said.

Journal Reference: Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, Mauss IB — The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidencedoi: 10.1037/pspp0000157