Peace of Mind: The importance of learning to cope with our emotions in healthy ways
The differences between maladaptive and adaptive emotions and how we should respond to them productively.
June 22, 2020
The past year has been one of the most difficult periods of my life. In the last few months, I have been struggling to come to terms with my identity as well as the ups and downs of my mental health. There have been times where I’ll wake up in the morning, my heart is racing, my body feels so heavy and even sitting up seems like a burden. I’ll want to stay in bed for a few more hours but realize I have summer classes to attend, so I will finally struggle to wake up.
As I’ve been going through all of this, the question that has been on my mind is: how can I still find meaning in life despite all the suffering? I believe the answer starts with practicing emotional validation, which I define as the ability to recognize, validate and cope with your emotions in healthy ways.
Let me first introduce the concept of adaptive emotions, which are the emotions that help us maintain homeostasis, a healthy bodily balance, by telling us what to approach or avoid. Just like hunger is an innate instinct that drives you to search for food, these emotions act as a compass to help us navigate the world. This means even negative emotions can be healthy because it’s useless to have a compass always pointing North.
For instance, feeling sad after losing a loved one is a natural reflection of that person’s value to you. Feeling sad in this case indicates a need to slow down and mourn. On the other hand, the anger you feel after witnessing an injustice demonstrates a recognition of something wrong in the world and arouses a desire for change.
Of course, sometimes we occasionally distract ourselves from the slings and arrows of life with a Netflix binge, a night out or a fun new project. Sometimes, doing so can be very useful. The real problem comes when we are chronically avoidant of uncomfortable, difficult and stressful experiences. In fact, this tendency, which has been termed “distress intolerance,” is associated with a higher risk for mental illnesses. When we are so afraid to feel sad or angry that we seek refuge in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking or self-harm, we end up doing more damage to ourselves in the long-run.
I do want to emphasize that even if I were to conquer my distress intolerance, there are other serious symptoms of my anxiety, such as a general feeling of restlessness and panic attacks, that remain chronic and have to be dealt with through therapy and/or medication. Those symptoms aren’t something people with mental illnesses can just “get through” and should not be accepted as normal parts of life. Rather, they’re what I call pathological or maladaptive emotional experiences. They constitute the main sources of pain for people with mental illnesses and require professional help.
That being said, people with mental illnesses still naturally experience adaptive emotions, and here are ways that we can properly cope with them in order to prevent further exacerbation of our more chronic symptoms. I can personally attest to the importance of letting myself feel my negative emotions to benefit my own mental health. Recent weeks have been especially challenging for me because of the loss of structure as a result of the pandemic. I’ve had many sleepless, teary, anxious and difficult days and weeks. In the midst of all this, I’m allowing myself to understand why I’m experiencing these things, accept that what I’m feeling is normal and attempt to cope with my negative emotions productively.
Trying to get rid of these feelings does me more damage than facing them. For instance, whenever some uncertainty comes up I do what my therapist calls reassurance checking. This entails conducting extensive internet searches, talking to family/friends repeatedly and ruminating excessively to get rid of that feeling. These things take a lot of time away from what I value, like getting enough sleep. In response, my therapist has suggested practicing mindfulness with my feelings of uncertainty and interoceptive exercises to better cope. I’m trying to be where I am at the moment and feel these things in healthy ways by journaling, crying, talking to friends or taking long walks. These strategies have helped me cope with my adaptive emotions, but I do intend to seek medication for my more maladaptive symptoms.
Once I let myself feel sad or uncertain, these feelings eventually pass just like waves or clouds. The stormy seas and rough waves give rise to calmer, more peaceful waves that quietly hug the shore. I gradually start to feel normal again and remember that despite it all, I’m alive and there’s so much good left in my life to experience—so many reasons to get out of my bed and start the day.