Fear of emotions is a common psychological issue, and involves being afraid, wary or distrustful of your emotional experiences.
This issue often arises because people worry they will lose control of themselves if they don’t control their emotions. Others can be concerned that emotions will be too painful to bear. These problems can be partly influenced by unwritten rules in society about managing emotions. For example, some men believe that emotional control and restriction are important ways to comply with dominant forms of masculinity. Negative emotions are just signals from the brain. If you start to believe they are more powerful than this, you can become overwhelmed and fearful of them.
Piling up the problems
Fear of emotions can be especially problematic due to potential knock-on effects. A good example here is anxiety. Being socially anxious is a problem that becomes more challenging when you begin to fear the anxiety itself. In other words, two sources of anxiety emerge; the social interaction, and the anxiety itself. This second source is sometimes called ‘fear of fear’ (‘metaworry’ for the nerds). It is very understandable to respond by avoiding negative emotions altogether. But this is a no-win situation given that emotions are there for a reason and hard-wired into our brains. There is no escaping them. Fighting or denying their presence can spell further strife.
What can you do?
The good news is that there are many ways to positively approach fear of negative emotions. First, it helps to have a useful ‘philosophy’ about emotions themselves. Emotions exist because they have an important evolutionary role. In this way, there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions. The purpose of fear for instance, is to alert us to danger (and respond in a way that doesn’t get us eaten). Imagine life if you didn’t possess the emotion of fear….you would last 5 minutes.
Having a helpful outlook on unpleasant emotions can assist with a second suggestion; look for unhelpful or unrealistic beliefs about emotions. Take the example fearing a loss of control. It is very rarely the case that emotions themselves result in a complete loss of mental control. Even if it were a genuine possibility, how helpful is it to tell yourself repeatedly “I’m going to lose control”? Instead, you could focus on how to manage distress when it occurs (see below). Furthermore, people are sometimes thinking about exceeding their preferred level of emotional control (i.e., how they would ideally act), rather than literally losing control. This preferred level can sometimes be unrealistic.
Third, the way you respond to emotions themselves is vital in addressing fear. Negative emotions can become more powerful when you consistently try to avoid them. Sure, there are times to distract yourself from on-going negative emotions (e.g., low mood). But there are also times to listen to your emotions and consider why they are present. You can focus on your emotions in two ways:
- ‘Sitting with’ the experience of negative emotion. Mindfulness is a useful way to achieve this. Developing skills to tolerate the distress that accompanies negative emotions can also help.
- Spend some time pondering the reasons why you are experiencing a negative emotional state. Examples of helpful questions include ‘Why am I experiencing emotion x and not y right now?’, ‘What does this emotion tell me about how I see this situation?’, and ‘What do I fear most about this emotion?’. Think of yourself as a scientist or investigative journalist. You are trying to learn about and understand the negative emotional state. The goal is not to ‘solve’ the negative emotion, but better understanding such states can reduce fear of them.
We cannot be rid of negative emotions, and they have an important role to play in our lives. Attempts to avoid negative emotions can lead to larger problems. There are many ways in which you can help yourself to better tolerate negative emotions, and spending some time trying to understand situations in which they arise can have benefits for your overall psychological well-being. You can find some useful information and exercises on mindfulness and distress tolerance at www.getselfhelp.co.uk.
If you want further advice and guidance on this, or other issues, contact Jason at www.jasonspendelow.com
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