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Why We Can't Just Get Rid of Anxiety and Distress

Why We Can't Just Get Rid of #Anxiety & Distress | Psychology Today #therapy
8:20 PM May 12 2014

Stashed in: Stress, Emotion, Brain, Depression, Anxiety, Depression

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There are six reasons why negative emotions (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 worries come into our minds, they may affect our bodies as well. Our hearts may start to race or breathing get short – we experience physiological symptoms of stress, which, over the long-term, can harm our bodies.

(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) Negative emotions, such as fear and shame, may help us to  survive as young children, when we can’t leave our families and have few options to change a negative situation. When we become adults, we continue to follow the same scripts and never learn that the rules have changed and we have many more options now. For example, if you were heavily punished as a child for talking back to your parent, you may have a lifelong fear of speaking up and asserting yourself, or you may not realize you have a right to leave relationships in which you are treated disrespectfully.

(6)  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 andmotivation 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.

As humans, with brains hard-wired to experience fear and distress, we face a dilemma. We can’t force negative emotions to leave our brains,  yet covering them up can lead to worse problems. And paying too much attention to them can create a downward spiral. What do we do with these essential, yet uncomfortable and troublesome parts of our minds?

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