If simply thinking your way to happiness was possible, anxiety disorders wouldn’t be the most prevalent mental health problem in the United States. As I tell my clients seeking help for anxiety, the mantra “take charge of your own happiness” sounds great, but it’s just not that simple in the real world. In fact, anxiety and worry are hard-wired into the human brain. They actually provide helpful information about the world, which is why we evolved to experience them so keenly.
Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert, has identified five reasons we struggle to control negative emotional experiences:
1. Our brains evolved to prioritize survival, not happiness. Remembering a dangerous event or worrying about the future helped us survive in our evolutionary past. In today’s modern world, however, they keep us stuck in a cycle of self-criticism, worry, and blame.
2. Pretending negative emotions don’t exist isn’t an effective strategy. In my work with men’s issues, I see many men struggling to tamp down their emotions or pretend they are unaffected by anxiety. However, our brains prioritize negative emotions, causing them to recur no matter how hard we try to get rid of them.
3. We react to mental images as though they are really happening. Our bodies and minds are uniquely linked. When we picture an upsetting memory, it links to the associated feelings of being worried or afraid, which in turn lead to physiological symptoms of stress that can be difficult to control.
4. Negative emotions feed on one another. As expert therapist Marsha Linehan likes to say, “emotions love themselves.” Worry leads to more worry, and fear leads to more fear. One simple negative thought — “I hate my job” — can spiral downward into hours of rumination that is tough to escape.
5. Poor strategies for coping with negative emotions can actually be worse than the emotions themselves. Anger, excessive eating, drinking, or drug use are understandable reactions to negative emotions, but they keep us stuck in the same destructive patterns.
Given the functions and consequences of negative emotions, it makes sense that it’s tough to get rid of anxiety. Although we cannot escape these emotions entirely, counseling can help us understand emotional experiences, reduce their harmful impact, and work toward our personal goals and values to live a more rewarding life.
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