Why “Just Get Over It” Doesn’t Work with Anxiety and Depression
By Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.
We are continually bombarded with messages from the media and self-help gurus that we are in charge of our own happiness. All we need to do is buy this product ot follow that secret formula and we can get rid of anxiety and negative emotion for good. If getting rid of negative emotions is so easy, why is it that more than 21 million children and adults get diagnosed with depression each year and that depression is the leading cause of disability for adults age 15-44? Why is it that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder?.
The truth is that we can’t just get rid of negative emotions when we feel like it.
Below are six reasons why negative emotions l(like fear or distress) are such a struggle for us:
(1) Our brains are wired for survival, not happiness. That is why they keep bringing up negative emotions, past mistakes, and worries about the future. We can get stuck in repetitive cycles of self-criticism, worry, and fear that interfere with our ability to be fully experience and react adaptively to what is happening in the present.
(2) It doesn’t work to just shove negative emotions down or pretend they don’t exist. Because of the survival wiring of our brains, they will be given high priority and keep popping up again in conscious experience. In fact, some research by Daniel Wegner and colleagues suggests that suppressing thoughts while in a negative mood makes it more likely both the thoughts and the negative mood will reoccur.
(3) Our physiological systems can react to mental images and events as if they are happening in the real world. Try thinking about smelling and then biting into a lemon. You will likely feel a change in saliva in your mouth. Now think about putting your hand on a hot stove. Do you feel your heart pounding a bit faster? Thus, when fearful thoughts and images come into your mind, your heart starts to race or your breathing get short.
(4) Negative thoughts feed on each other. We may begin by worrying about not having enough money. Then we may think, “What if I lose my job?” and then about all the people who won’t help us and the past mistakes we made getting into this financial situation in the first place. Before we know it, allowing ourselves to dwell on a small negative thought has led to a mental mountain of difficulties.
(5) The things we do to avoid or try to cope with feeling negative emotions may be more counterproductive than the emotions themselves. People frequently turn to alcohol, marijuana, or prescription drugs, such as Xanax, to escape anxiety. These substances have negative effects on mood and motivation and addictive properties. Turning to food excessively can lead to overweight or obesity and low self-esteem associated with weight gain. Getting angry and blaming others for our negative emotions can ruin our relationships. Shopping or avoiding opening the bills can lead to mountains of debt.
So what do we do with those distressing and uncomfortable feelings? The answer is surprisingly simple – We learn to make peace with our own feelings and, by doing so, take away their power. As we begin to untangle the feelings themselves from our negative judgments about them (e.g., crying is a sign of weakness), we begin to allow them in. We learn when to listen to our feelings and when to calm them down. Once we understand the connection between events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings, we can better anticipate our own reactions, make better choices about how we spend our time, and prepare for emotionally “high risk” situations. We can also use mindfulness techniques or cognitive reframing strategies to take a step back and see the issue from a broader, wiser perspective.
Psychotherapy can provide you with expert guidance, coping strategies, and emotional support to experience and express your own feelings, while staying grounded and present. The effects of allowing in your natural, healthy emotional emotions can be transformative and empowering. You need to face your own feelings to get back in the driver’s seat of your life.
To contact Dr. Greenberg or to find out about her services, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org , visit her website http://melaniegreenbergphd.com/marin-psychologist/ or read her blog – The Mindful Self-Express http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express.
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Please visit http://www.marincountypsych.org for more information about our association and membership benefits or to locate a licensed clinical psychologist in Marin County.
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The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.