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5 Reasons It's So Hard to Combat Anxiety and Depression and What You Can Do

Negative emotions can be a challenge, but there are effective ways to cope.

Have you ever had a friend or family member tell you to “just get over it” when you felt sad or worried? If getting rid of negative emotions is so easy, why is it that more than 21 million children and adults get diagnosed with depression each year and that depression is the leading cause of disability for adults age 15-44? Why is it that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder? The truth is we can’t just get rid of negative emotions whenever we feel like it. Sometimes we can distract ourselves or think more positively, but at other times the emotions grab hold of us and cling on.

The reason it is such a struggle to combat negative emotions is that they are there for a reason—to warn us of danger and gear up our minds and bodies for escape or self-protection or to help us withdraw and conserve energy when we face a loss. But sometimes these reactions are unwarranted, too intense, or interfere with effective coping and problem-solving. Below are six reasons why negative emotions are so hard to manage.

1. Your brain is wired for survival, not happiness. That is why it keeps bringing up negative emotions, past mistakes and worries about the future. Because of this wiring, you can get stuck in repetitive cycles of self-criticism, worry and fear that interfere with your ability to enjoy the present moment.

2. It doesn’t work to just shove negative emotions down or pretend they don’t exist. Your mind will keep bringing them up again as a reminder that you have an ongoing problem that needs to be handled (even when there is nothing you can actually do to make it better). Research by Daniel Wegner and colleagues suggests that suppressing thoughts while in a negative mood makes it more likely that both the thoughts and the negative mood will reoccur.

3. Your body and mind react to mental images and events as if they are events happening in the real world. Try thinking about smelling and then biting into a lemon. You will likely feel a change in saliva in your mouth. Now think about putting your hand on a hot stove. Do you feel your heart pounding a bit faster? You can get just as stressed by thoughts about an event as by the event itself. When negative feelings become chronic, they wear out your mind and body, causing inflammation, hormonal imbalance, or impaired immunity.

4. Negative thoughts feed on each other. You may worry about not having enough money. Next you think, “What if I lose my job?” Then you wonder you could ask for help and next thing, you’re feeling alone and unsupported. Rumination can turn a controllable problem into a set of insurmountable difficulties.

5. The things you do to avoid or try to cope with feeling negative emotions may be more counterproductive than the emotions themselves. You may turn to alcohol, marijuana, or excess use of prescription drugs to escape feeling bad. These substances can have long-term negative effects on mood and motivation and have addictive properties. Turning to food excessively can lead to overweight or obesity and low self-esteem associated with weight gain.  Getting angry and blaming others for your negative emotions can strain your relationships. Retail therapy can lead to debt.

What You Can Do

If suppression doesn’t work, what can you do with sad, angry or anxious feelings? Below are six surprising coping strategies that can help.

1. Allow Feelings In

The feelings will be there anyway, so why not take a look at them? Perhaps they have a message for you about something in your life that needs to change. Perhaps they are a symptom of past, unresolved painful events that need more processing and attention. They may signal strong unmet needs that would be helpful to pay attention to. When you invite emotions in and let them be there, they become less scary and shameful. They will naturally run their course and move on through.

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