Nathan A Heflick Ph.D
New research shows that accepting negative moods can reduce them.
I am going to make a list. All I ask—indulge me, it's Christmas!—is that you decide whether these things make your life pleasant or unpleasant.
Without further ado, here is the list: Anxiety, Sadness, Shame, Guilt, Fear, Distress, Panic, Resentment, Anger.
Now, I doubt many of you were thinking, "Gee, these things sound fantastic. My life would be so much better if I could just feel a little more distress, shame, and resentment today." So what if there was a way to reduce the amount of these feelings you have in the future? Seems like a pretty good deal. But should people actively try and fight these emotional states or should they try and accept them?
New research headed by psychologist Brett Ford at the University of Toronto explored just this question. Specifically, it looked at if the amount that people "accept" their negative emotions is associated with (a) better mental health and (b) reduced negative moods over time. By acceptance, these authors do not mean simply allowing and being okay with negative things happening to you or being mistreated, but rather, experiencing and thinking about your own negative emotions in a non-judgemental way.
In one study of over 1,000 people, they found that accepting mental experiences was related to less anxiety and depression and to more life satisfaction. This was even when "controlling" for potentially related variables like cognitive re-appraisal (re-thinking something to make it more positive/less negative) and rumination. This means, basically, that the effect persisted even when those other variables were accounted for.
In Study 2, these researchers measured people's general level of acceptance of their negative thoughts and emotions. They then exposed participants in a laboratory to a variety of stressors. Participants with a higher level of general acceptance experienced lower levels of negative mood as a response.
In Study 3, they assessed around 200 participants over a six month period. They found that high levels of acceptance were associated with better mental health at Time 1, and the relationship between acceptance and positive mental health was explained by reduced levels of negative emotions six months later.
Taken together, these studies suggest that one way to reduce negative moods is to stop beating yourself up about thinking bad thoughts and having negative feelings. Accepting them—and this might be easier said than done but is still possible—can greatly improve your mental health.
It's no good to feel shame, anger, or distress, or any other negative emotion as a response to feeling poorly. Shaming yourself over shame, or making yourself distressed over your own anger, is likely to yield negative results.
In closing, I want to again make the point that accepting your mental states and your negative moods is not the same thing as accepting your life situations or allowing people to mistreat you.
Happy holidays, and I hope you all have a better year than the last!
Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075-1092.