Karen Lawson, MD | University of Minnesota, February 2015
Emotions that are freely experienced and expressed without judgment or attachment tend to flow fluidly. On the other hand, repressed emotions (especially fearful or negative ones) can zap mental energy and hope and lead to health problems, such as high blood pressure or digestive disorders.
Therefore, it’s important for us to recognize and identify our thoughts and emotions, and to be aware of the impact they have—not only on each other, but also on our bodies, behavior, and relationships. As our awareness increases, we find it easier to recognize what we are thinking, how we are feeling, and our attitude towards the experience. We can then choose to adjust our thoughts and emotional responses.
Negativity and physical health
Chronic stress from negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body’s hormone balance and deplete the brain chemicals required for feelings of happiness, as well as have a damaging impact on the immune system. New scientific understandings have also identified the process by which chronic stress can actually decrease our lifespan by shortening our telomeres (the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which play a big role in aging).
Poorly managed or repressed anger (hostility) is also related to a slew of health conditions, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and infection.
The importance of positivity
Scientist Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions have two important effects: they broaden our perspective of the world (thus inspiring more creativity, wonder, and options), and they build up over time, creating lasting emotional resilience and flourishing.
Dr. Fredrickson has spent years researching and publishing the physical and emotional benefits of positivity, including faster recovery from cardiovascular stress, better sleep, fewer colds, and a greater sense of overall happiness. The good news is not only that positive attitudes—such as playfulness, gratitude, awe, love, interest, serenity, and feeling connected to others—have a direct impact on health and wellbeing, but that we can develop them ourselves with practice.
However, in our wish to defend against threat and loss in life, we tend to prioritize bad over good.While this is a tidy survival mechanism for someone who needs to stay hyper vigilant in a dangerous environment, the truth is that for most of us, this “negativity bias” means that we spend time ruminating over the minor frustrations we experience—bad traffic, a disagreement with a loved one—and ignoring the many chances we have to experience wonder, awe, and gratitude throughout the day.
Fredrickson has calculated that in order to offset the negativity bias and experience a harmonious emotional state, we need to experience three positive emotions for every negative one. This, she claims, can be done intentionally for those of us less “wired” to positivity. These positive emotions literally reverse the physical effects of negativity and build up psychological resources that contribute to a flourishing life.
The attitude of forgiveness—fully accepting that a negative circumstance has occurred and relinquishing negative feelings surrounding the event—can be learned and can lead us to experience better mental, emotional and physical health. The Stanford Forgiveness Project trained 260 adults in forgiveness in a 6-week course.
- 70% reported a decrease in their feelings of hurt
- 13% experienced reduced anger
- 27% experienced fewer physical complaints (for example, pain, gastrointestinal upset, dizziness, etc.)
The practice of forgiveness has also been linked to better immune function and a longer lifespan. Other studies have shown that forgiveness has more than just a metaphorical effect on the heart: it can actually lower our blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health as well.
Acknowledging the good aspects of life and giving thanks have a powerful impact on emotional wellbeing. In a landmark study, people who were asked to count their blessings felt happier, exercised more, had fewer physical complaints, and slept better than those who created lists of hassles.
Brené Brown has found that there is a relationship between joy and gratitude, but with a surprising twist: it’s not joy that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us joyful.
Dr. Andrew Weil describes resilience as being like a rubber band—no matter how far a resilient person is stretched or pulled by negative emotions, he or she has the ability to bounce back to his or her original state. Resilient people are able to experience tough emotions like pain, sorrow, frustration, and grief without falling apart—in fact, some people are able to look at challenging times with optimism and hope, knowing that their hardships will lead to personal growth and an expanded outlook on life.
Resilient people do not deny the pain or suffering they are experiencing; rather, they retain a sense of positivity that helps them overcome the negative effects of their situation. Positive emotions have a scientific purpose—to help the body recover from the ill effects of negative emotions. Thus cultivating positivity over time can help us become more resilient in the face of crisis or stress.