Embracing your darkest emotions could lead to better mental health

It’s time to indulge your inner grump

It’s time to indulge your inner grump

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Turn that frown upside down. It's a suggestion that, timed perfectly, really only makes one want to turn a building into rubble.

It's not so much our right to pursue happiness as it seems to be our duty. We must be happy. Instagram accounts must broadcast fulfillment. FB pages must show joyousness. Meanwhile, darker displays of emotion are often tagged as mental health championing (which, as a card carrying advocate, I support) but sadness, grouchiness, and disenchantment are also just regular feels that make up the broad spectrum of human emotion. And they should be conveyed as such. Even celebrated. Gasp.

Flipping your friends off is definitely not the way to go, but science now says expressing and accepting negative feelings is crucial to making way for more positive ones.

A recent study out of UC Berkeley suggests that pressures to feel cheery actually make us feel more glum in the long run. What's more, research showed that embracing gloominess may result in better mental health overall. It's an important find and one that could leverage our constant need to feel fully satisfied emotionally at all times.

Dr. Iris Mauss and her team found that those who gave themselves full permission to embrace their darkest feelings were less prone to more acute markers of psychological stress, a hallmark of many mood disorders. "We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," says Mauss. The reverse was also true. Subjects who had a tendency to resist bad feelings or who judged their more somber feeling states harshly weren't as capable of managing psychological stress over time. Making peace with your inner emo kid may set you free. Floopy haircuts optional, of course. The data, yielded by testing 1,300 subjects for discernable links between emotional acceptance and psychological health, is welcome - but researchers don't fully understand the correlations yet.

To be fair, health science is still in its infancy historically speaking. The frontal lobotomy enjoyed its heyday only 60 years ago. Still, Mauss speculates that a passive observation of our less pleasant emotions could allow them to simply drift by while fighting them may make us cling to them longer. "Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," she says. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

Float, don't fight. New mantra: It's okay to be a storm cloud today. Got it.


Interestingly, mindfulness practices bolstered by meditation center on breathing through and feeling all your feelings free of judgement. So, do keep that handy if you're reading this for a concrete takeaway, fellow mood manager.

Bret Ford, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and one of the the study's lead authors says, "it turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being." The study confirms that letting feeling states like defeat, irritation and bleakness simply run their course cleared an emotional path leading to fewer symptoms of common mood disorders (acute and persistent anxiety and depression, for example). "People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully." The scientific case for letting yourself feel all the feels. 

Mauss and her team hope to look further into cultural and environmental frameworks in future studies to better grasp why some folks are just better at embracing the full spectrum of human emotion without getting caught up in them. She added, "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."

Important final note: acute and prolonged states of sadness and despair are (understatement alert) tough to just float through and even tougher to shake off. And help should be sought. Thankfully, we're slowly moving past stigma and allies are closer than many realize. Giving yourself permission to not fight feelings of downheartedness or anger can be helpful - especially if you're working with a healthcare professional.

The study is clear that regular pangs of sadness and anger be felt without judgement to avoid letting them pile up, making mountains out of mood hills. It's healthy to feel a little gloomy sometimes. I humbly submit that you're an outlier on this planet if you don't and should probably be studied.   

So, you know, "I am a storm cloud and that's okay". Breathe and repeat until forecast clears.