How to Process Negative Emotions and Let Them Go

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mind Over Medicine" by Lissa Rankin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the best way to deal with negative emotions? Why is it not a good idea to suppress or distract yourself from negative emotions?

We all succumb to negative emotions from time to time, but avoiding them isn’t the most optimal way to deal with them. According to Lissa Rankin, the author of Mind Over Medicine, allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions in their full magnitude can help us process them faster.

Here are some tips on how to process negative emotions and let them go.

Normalize Negative Emotions 

If you believe you shouldn’t experience negative emotions at all, when these emotions inevitably occur, you’ll worry about your worries, which will cause you to spiral into chronic stress. In her book Mind Over Medicine, Lissa Rankin explains how to process negative emotions in a healthy way. Rankin says because we’re not in total control of our thoughts and feelings, we should embrace sadness, anger, and fear. Acknowledging these negative emotions help us process them more effectively and allow them to pass. To embrace your negative emotions in a healthy manner, appreciate the purpose they serve you. For example, fear helps you survive by making you apprehensive and alert around danger.

(Shortform note:  In When the Body Says No, Gabor Maté explains that it’s also important not to practice “toxic positivity”—where you focus so much on positive thinking that you repress your negative feelings. By forcing insincere positive feelings, you’ll mask the negative feelings that you need to pay attention to in order to heal. This is often caused by our attempts to avoid the pain our negative emotions cause us or our desire to please other peoples’ expectations of us. Instead, accepting your negative emotions and paying attention to what they’re telling you can help you discover their root cause, which will ultimately help you correct your lifestyle and live healthier.)

While it’s healthy to acknowledge and embrace negative emotions, which are temporary, negative beliefs are more insidious because they induce chronic threat responses. To change a negative or self-limiting belief, Rankin says to argue against it by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the belief true? If so, what evidence is there to support that it’s true?
  • How does this belief make you feel?
  • How would your life be different if you didn’t have this belief?

Then, replace your negative belief with a positive alternative. Consider using whatever the positive opposite of your negative belief is. For example, if your negative belief is that your sickness is the only valid excuse for canceling events you don’t want to attend, you could counter this belief by realizing that you can cancel plans by being honest with the people at those events.

Why Your Beliefs About Stress Matter

In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal argues that stressful events aren’t what damage your health, it’s your beliefs that make the difference. She supports this by citing a study that found that high levels of stress increased the risk of death by 43%—except for those who didn’t believe stress was harmful. In fact, the lowest risk of death occurred in those who experienced high stress but didn’t believe it was harmful. This risk was even lower than those who reported low levels of stress. Although the researchers didn’t manipulate the participants’ mindsets—and thus, couldn’t say for certain that a difference in mindset was the cause—participants’ negative mindset was the strongest predictor for mortality.McGonigal explains your mindset—that is, a set of beliefs that determine your worldview—makes a difference in whether stress harms you or not because it determines the type of stress response you have. A negative mindset on stress tends to trigger a harmful fight-or-flight response while a positive mindset induces a challenge or tend-and-befriend response (which we covered earlier.)
One way to develop a more positive mindset about stress is to embrace it as an opportunity to grow. For example, if you go through a difficult breakup, realize that the pain of this situation can also provide you with more freedom and an opportunity for personal development.
How to Process Negative Emotions and Let Them Go

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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