Navigating Negative Emotions

Written by Violaine Guéritault, Ph.D.

Although they are part of the human experience, negative emotions can be particularly unpleasant, as we all know. However, scientists insist on the fact that, when well managed, they also play a key function in our well-being by helping us make sense of life’s ups and downs. Some of them can even play an important role in our survival (e.g., fear, anger, or overload) by warning us of a potential threat. Yet, when negative emotions are poorly managed or handled, they can have some rather harmful consequences for both our mental and physical health (chronic stress and distress) which can disrupt our body’s hormone balance, damage our immune system, and drain our brain chemicals necessary for us to experience happiness.

Let’s now take a closer look at some of the most common negative emotions your young person may be experiencing.

They feel DISCOMFORT
What is it?

It’s a sort of feeling or thought that something is not quite right, it feels off and just doesn’t feel good mentally or physically. It makes them feel unsettled and wanting to make it go away, one way or the other. It’s unpleasant but it’s usually not intense.

What is the feeling of discomfort telling your young person?

Discomfort can be telling them something about how they are reacting to their present situation or thought process. It’s asking them to pay attention to what they are really feeling uncomfortable about. Is it boredom, embarrassment, or impatience?

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage discomfort?
  • Recognize it, acknowledge it, and name it.
  • Rather than to avoid it or ignore it, help them open up to the possibility of learning something new about themselves from this experience.
  • Motivate them to embrace the opportunity to get out of their comfort zone. If they are able to feel comfortable with feeling discomfort, then they can achieve almost anything.
  • Help them learn to let go of their expectations.
  • Ask them to try and identify where the discomfort is coming from and attempt to dissolve it by changing the situation or behavior, especially if it is discomfort stemming from a negative situation.

They feel FEARFUL

What is it?

It’s one of the fundamental human emotions we all experience when faced with the threat of harm, either physically or emotionally, real or imagined. Traditionally, fear is regarded as a “negative emotion” but it actually serves an important role in keeping us safe.

What is the emotion of fear telling your young person?

Fear is alerting them of a potential and imminent threat. It’s telling them to focus and be ready to act in the face of danger, if that danger is real. If the threat is imagined, it’s telling them to reevaluate their perception and interpretation of a situation. Learning to cope with the fear of an imagined threat is an invitation to grow as a person.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage fear?
  • Pay close attention and evaluate if the fear is real or imagined by looking at the evidence.
  • If it’s real: they should act on it immediately.
  • If it’s imagined:
  • Before anything else — BREATHE! Help them learn to breathe slowly and deeply several times to calm down both their body and their mind.
  • Don’t use avoidance. If they face their fear, it will lose its power over them and it will fade.
  • Help them to be kind to themselves as they would to a loved one going through a similar experience.
  • Practice being okay with things being out of their control.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. They’re a very powerful tool to overcome fear and anxiety.

They feel HURT

What is it?

The feeling of hurt is a form of emotional pain not caused by physical sources. Hurt usually is the result of the actions or words of others that cause emotional distress, such as feeling unhappy, sad, or betrayed. Emotional pain should be taken seriously because it can have a significant impact on mental health (e.g., deep sorrow, depression, grief, negative emotions, shame, worthlessness) and physical health (e.g., headaches, muscle pain, nausea, dizziness, stomachache, or gastrointestinal upset).

What is feeling emotionally hurt telling your young person?

Emotional pain/hurt invites them to explore its meaning and causes. These are often associated with the actions or the words of people around them. Finding the meaning of their emotional hurt will give them the motivation to consider or reconsider their relationship to certain people, to improve or let go of those relationships, and to heal so they can move towards a happier future.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage emotional hurt?
  • Encourage them to stop denying or fighting feelings of hurt. Face it and explore it. That’s how it will lose its power over them.
  • Practice mindfulness. This will give your young person the tools to develop their awareness so they can have better insight into the causes of their emotional pain.
  • Help your young person talk to someone they trust and they know will understand them and support them.
  • Find a form of physical exercise they enjoy. It will improve their mood and help them deal with the feelings of emotional pain/hurt.

They feel ANGRY

What is it?

Anger reveals a deep need for control when you feel you’re lacking control over what’s happening to you. It makes you feel in charge rather than helpless when you feel frustrated, invalidated, or treated unfairly. It’s a natural and mostly automatic response to perceived threats. It has a survival value because it provides you with a perceived sense of control, but it can become a problem if you don’t manage it in a healthy way. However, when well-managed and expressed with discernment, anger can motivate us to solve problems, drive us toward our goals, and protect our values and beliefs.

What is the emotion of anger telling your young person?

Anger is telling them that they are in a situation that makes them feel powerless and that they are converting their feelings of vulnerability and helplessness into feelings of control and power. Anger is often experienced as a way to avoid acknowledging the painful feelings associated with vulnerability.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage anger?
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. They both teach relaxation skills that will not only help them manage their anger, but will also help them express it wisely and constructively.
  • Help them practice thinking before they speak.
  • Take a time out and breathe deeply.
  • Get some exercise. Physical activity can help reduce stress that causes people to become angry.
  • Don’t hold a grudge. Forgiveness can go a very long way and will help us not get swallowed up by our own bitterness and resentment.

They feel FRUSTRATED

What is it?

Frustration is a common emotion that we all encounter on a regular basis. It usually shows up in situations when we feel blocked from reaching a desired outcome. When we reach our goals, we feel pleased and excited, but when we are prevented from reaching them we tend to give in to frustration and we may feel irritable, and sometimes even annoyed and angry. And as experience teaches us, the more important the goal, the greater the frustration.

What is the emotion of frustration telling your young person?

Frustration is telling them that the efforts and actions they’re applying to a situation are not producing the results they think they should. Simply put, your young person is not getting what they want, and that can be very frustrating.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage frustration?
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. Practicing this will teach them the following effective ways to manage their frustration:
  • Step back and distance themselves from events.
  • Feel the frustration, process it, and let it go.
  • Take some deep breaths, become calmer, and then take action.
  • Assess if they need to accept a situation or if they can change it.
  • Help your young person expand their frustration tolerance by scaffolding/supporting challenging activities, so they can feel success when they persevere.

They feel DISAPPOINTED

What is it?

This emotion is often described as a form of sadness, accompanied by a feeling of loss that arises when there is a gap between our expectations and reality. We feel disappointed when our hope for something we wanted has been defeated. When it comes to disappointment, the intensity of this emotion depends on several factors: how important the thing we wanted is, how long we’ve been waiting for that thing, and how definitive the outcome is.

What is disappointment telling your young person?

There is nothing pleasant about being disappointed, but if they’re open to it, this emotion can provide them with very important information about themselves, their beliefs, the people around them, and what they think would make them happy.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage disappointment?
  • First and foremost, help them accept how they feel. Then help them face their disappointment, process it, and let it fade gradually. Avoiding this emotion, like any other negative emotion, will only reinforce its power over them.
  • Help them be humble and learn from their experience. This emotion will help them grow by giving them insight about themselves.
  • Model practicing gratitude and help them refocus on what they have as opposed to what they didn’t get.
  • Encourage them to share their disappointment with a caring and trusted friend. This can help give them the energy and motivation they need to move forward.
  • Help them to stop falling into the destructive comparison trap. The grass is definitely not always greener on the other side of the fence…

They feel GUILTY

What is it?

Guilt is a powerful emotion experienced by all of us at one point or another. It’s often associated with a sense of responsibility and remorse when we are convinced that we caused harm either through our actions, our thoughts, or our spoken words. This emotion makes us feel like we’ve fallen short of some standard we wish we had lived up to.

Although guilt is mostly regarded as being a negative emotion, it can also be seen in a more positive light because it can motivate us to learn from painful experiences and change our behavior. However, it’s important to stay vigilant and aware of what’s going on so we don’t let guilt bring us down or impede our progress by paralyzing us. Once again, awareness is the key to finding that balance.

What is the emotion of guilt telling your young person?

Well managed, the emotion of guilt is telling them that they did something wrong or hurtful and that they need to do something to make amends and repair a relationship that matters to them. It’s an invitation to grow as a person. On the other hand, if poorly handled, guilt will only cause them to feel badly about themselves for reasons that are not always legitimate.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage guilt?

Develop their awareness through the practice of mindfulness. It will help them put a name on their feelings and figure out whether their guilt is appropriate, and if it is, what purpose it serves.

Support them in taking responsibility for their actions and apologizing right away in an unconditional manner. Don’t let them try to shift blame onto other people. Being able to say “I’m sorry” takes courage and shows strength of character.

Help them accept that they did something wrong, forgive themselves, learn from their mistakes, and move on. Don’t let them dwell on the past.

Encourage them to change their behavior and remember that guilt can strengthen their resilience, help them grow, and build their confidence that they will make better choices in the future.

They feel INADEQUATE

What is it?

The emotion of inadequacy will show up in our life if we feel we are “too much” or “not enough” of something. As opposed to many other emotions, the sense of inadequacy is not innate. We acquire this emotion through our life experiences and other types of emotions. We must always remember that the feeling that we are not “good enough,” whatever the reason, is not necessarily objective even if it feels like an absolute truth to us. It’s a subjective interpretation and a learned response that often finds its roots in our past experiences. It is the ultimate illustration of the saying “We are our own worst enemy.”

What is the feeling of inadequacy telling your young person?

Inadequacy could be telling them that they are comparing themselves to others in a way that may be subjective, and most of the time, completely distorted. It could also be telling them that someone in their life is making them feel inadequate by making hurtful or demeaning comments about them. The problem in this case is that the moment your young person buys into those comments, they are giving their personal power away to whoever made them, and that should always be avoided. Their personal power belongs in one place only, and that is in their own hands.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage inadequacy?
  • Help them become fully aware of the situations when they feel inadequate. Explore the situations and have them ask themselves “Am I being truly objective in my interpretation of this situation?”
  • Encourage them to spend plenty of time with positive, uplifting, and encouraging people. They should try and distance themselves from people who bring them down.
  • Motivate them to devote themselves to activities they love and enjoy. Such activities will keep their mind occupied and focused on something that makes them feel good about themselves.
  • Remind them of their strengths by asking them to make a list of them. It may seem difficult for them at first, but don’t let them give up after just a few minutes. Stick to it until they have listed at least five strengths. They will be surprised how, by the time they get to the fifth strength, many more will come to them a lot more easily than they may have thought.

They feel STRESSED

What is it?

Emotional overload/overwhelm may be experienced when some of our emotions become so intense that we feel we can’t cope or manage them anymore. These emotions whose intensity builds over time may be caused by prolonged stress, adversity, traumatic life experiences (e.g., chronic bullying), or a life-threatening accident.

People who experience emotional overload/overwhelm might see their ability to think and act rationally be significantly affected. They often have difficulties focusing on and performing daily tasks. They also tend to withdraw from their friends and family and see their feelings of intense grief penetrate many areas of their life. Emotional overload/overwhelm should not be ignored in the hopes that it will go away on its own, because if left unaddressed, it can have serious repercussions not only on our mental health (anxiety and depression), but also on our physical health (e.g., persistent fatigue, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbances).

What is emotional overload/overwhelm telling your young person?

The message here is simple — your young person has a very, very full plate or they’ve been through some highly stressful event(s), and their mind has reached its limits when it comes to its ability to cope in an effective and healthy manner. It’s urgent for your young person to be very kind to themselves and to take good care of both their body and their mind.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage emotional overload?
  • They need to reach out for help and talk to a trusted friend, family member who cares about them, or a therapist who will know how to support them.
  • Another great solution here is the practice of mindfulness. It works miracles when it comes to emotional overload. It will teach them very effective and fast-acting relaxation techniques that will bring their mind and their body to a place of calmness and awareness. They will also learn to identify their stress triggers more easily and how to manage them effectively.
  • Meditate and then meditate some more! Meditation will help them learn how to redirect their thoughts at will, so they can choose to focus on positive and comforting thoughts that will help them manage their emotions and reduce their emotional stress.
  • Help them reduce some of the stressors on their plate. Ensure they are getting enough sleep, eating well, and getting physical activity and/or time in nature.

They feel LONELY

What is it?

Loneliness is an emotion experienced by all of us from time to time. Although each and every one of us experiences it differently and for different reasons, a well agreed upon description of it is the feeling that our needs for social contacts and meaningful relationships are not being met. Certain life events are well known for triggering a deep sense of loneliness, such as a breakup, the death of a loved one, moving to a new area, or going to college. However, by experience we know very well that loneliness is not necessarily the same as being alone. Sometimes we are surrounded with plenty of people and yet we still feel lonely and isolated.

The problem is that when we are lonely we tend to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. We crave for meaningful social contacts but because of our state of mind, we can find it difficult to connect with other people. Loneliness is a painful emotion that shouldn’t be dismissed or overlooked because of the negative consequences it can have on our mental and physical health, such as depression, anxiety, altered cognitive and brain functions, and substance use.

What is loneliness telling your young person?

This emotion is telling them that their needs for closeness and belonging are not being met, and that their relationships are not emotionally fulfilling or are inadequate. Loneliness alerts them that it is time for them to take necessary action to cultivate relationships that are more in tune with who they truly are, or that it is time to let go of the pain associated with a loss, such as a breakup. It is easier said than done of course, but your young person should be reminded of the Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Whether they need to let go of a painful situation or meet new people, it’s important that they choose to take that first step. They might be surprised how easily the next steps will follow.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage loneliness?
  • Encourage your young person to spend more quality time with those they love and who are already in their life.
  • Help them take the first step to meet people who share their values, interests, and attitudes. They could join a group of people who practice an activity that resonates with who they are, such as photography, art, sports, or volunteering. Remember that quality is a lot better than quantity, and that just one or two close and caring friends are enough to repel loneliness and its negative impact on their health.
  • Welcome the kindness of others. Remind them to keep an open heart and embrace the love people around them want to give them. Love is very healing, and if they let it, it will effortlessly shatter the walls loneliness can build around them.

They feel ANXIOUS / SCARED

What is it?

Anxiety is a very common emotion that we all experience at some point in our life. It is characterized by an amplified and chronic state of tension and worry that may be caused by either a specific situation or no apparent reason. Anxiety is often accompanied by different symptoms, such as muscle tension, fatigue, headaches, and nausea, but also irritability, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, loss of motivation, and sometimes even depression. It’s important, however, to understand that anxiety is also at the heart of an adaptive and protective system all humans benefit from. It alerts us of and protects us from future potential threats in our environment and helps us mobilize our resources to face such threats. Problems arise when we experience excessive amounts of anxiety due to intense stress that overwhelms the adaptive function of this emotion, thus creating disruptions in our life because our coping abilities are being overtaxed.

What is feeling anxious telling your young person?

Anxiety is like an alarm system that’s telling them that something important is going on. Although it’s not a very pleasant emotion, it warns them of a potential danger and helps them respond to that danger. Getting rid of their ability to feel anxiety would be as problematic as losing their ability to feel pain. It would make them physically and emotionally vulnerable. But too much of it will also cause them distress. It’s all about finding the right balance.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage anxiety?
  • Learn about and practice mindfulness. Help them breathe deeply, cultivate their emotional awareness, and learn how to identify and manage their triggers.
  • Meditate, meditate, and meditate some more! Support them in learning to breathe, focus, restore inner peace, and let go of excessive worry with the help of meditation.
  • Don’t run away from anxiety. Ask your young person to write down their thoughts and what makes them anxious. Let those thoughts out of their head and let them dissipate.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Help them take good care of their body and mind with good sleep, exercise, and eating habits.
  • Remind them to spend more time with positive and uplifting people who make them feel good.

They feel SAD

What is it?

Sadness is one of the seven universal emotions described by Darwin in 1872 and experienced by all human beings. This emotion is very much associated with grief, a sense of loss, and the wish that things could be different and better. The causes of sadness can be very varied and often results in the loss of hopes, dreams, or expectations. This sense of loss and grief may be mild, strong, or anywhere in between. It can come and go without warning. At times, it may make us feel tearful, empty, or hopeless, and cause us to feel irritable or frustrated over the smallest things. In and of itself, the emotion of sadness is completely normal and is part of our human condition, but when it becomes too frequent or overwhelming, it is essential to find ways to restore balance and inner peace.

What is the emotion of sadness telling your young person?

Although sadness is regarded as a negative emotion, it serves the important purpose of alerting them that they need to receive help, support, and comfort. It should never be ignored or dismissed since sometimes it may be a symptom of depression or an anxiety disorder. When feelings of sadness become too strong, reaching out for help and practicing self-care should become a priority for your young person.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage sadness?
  • Discover the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. It will sharpen their  awareness and help them identify how they feel and why. Knowing your emotions is knowing yourself, and such knowledge will lead them to self-acceptance and self-compassion.
  • Develop their mental strength. It will help their capacity for resilience to grow and expand. Mental strength is a great asset in the face of adversity.
  • Learn through mindfulness how to transform negative thoughts into more positive and constructive ones.
  • Get them the support they need. Help them talk to people they trust and love. Those are the people who will give them the courage and motivation to overcome their grief and sense of loss.
  • Uplift their mood by engaging them in activities that make them feel good. Seek the company of positive, optimistic, and caring people.

They feel DISCONNECTED / WITHDRAWN

What is it?

We all have experienced feeling disconnected or withdrawn at some point in our life. When we feel this way, it seems more difficult to fully engage with or relate to our own feelings or those of others. This means, for example, that it may be difficult for us to identify and name our own emotions, that it’s hard for us to feel deep emotions toward someone we love, or that we’re just generally feeling “empty.” It can be a temporary state due to extreme stress, or a more lasting condition.

How do we get to feeling that way? One reason worth mentioning is that we live in a world of modern technology and innovation, which in appearance, promises us to stay more connected and informed than ever before. And yet, why do so many of us experience the exact opposite? The unintended consequence of modern technology is that our interactions with others have become much like “drive-thru” experiences that lack depth, meaningfulness, and often compassion and kindness.

What is feeling disconnected/withdrawn telling your young person?

Feeling disconnected and withdrawn is alerting them that they may be losing their sense of self, and that they can’t connect to other people in a healthy and positive manner anymore. It’s telling them that they’ve become disconnected from their own life, going through it in an “automatic pilot” mode, as if they were observing it from the outside. Feeling disconnected may also be telling your young person that for any given reason, they are in a place where they don’t want to feel their emotions anymore in order to avoid emotional pain. This is called a defense mechanism. They don’t have to go through life feeling this way. They need to trust that things can change and that they can feel again. It’s time for your young person to reconnect and love their life.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage feeling disconnected/withdrawn?
  • Meditate and breathe. Learning to breathe deeply will restore control and peace in their life. It will make them feel grounded and will help them remember where they are and who they are.
  • Stimulate their five senses. Help them give themselves permission to “feel” life through their sense of touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. The results will surprise them.
  • Face and reflect upon how they feel. This will help them connect back to themselves.
  • Practice gratitude and rediscover the joy that can be found in the simple things in life. Help them focus on love and beauty, whether in nature or the people in their life, and help them realize that there can be so much to feel alive for.
  • Work with them on adopting a healthy lifestyle (good sleep, exercise, and eating habits). Help them be kind to themselves and fall in love with their life all over again.
  • Encourage them to join activities that bring joy and meaning to their life including art, volunteering, working, or sports.

They feel DESPERATE

What is it?

Feeling desperate is often associated with the feeling that our current situation is so bad that there is nothing we can do to make it better, that all hope to reach our goals is lost, or that we can’t prevent something bad from happening. Desperation is often experienced together with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. These make us feel cut off and disconnected from our friends and family. Our mind may feel clouded with negativity; we lack mental strength, motivation, and hope. We also may feel alone and unable to cope appropriately.

It is important to understand that the thoughts that fuel desperation are just that — thoughts. They are neither tangible nor real. They deceive us into thinking that they are the reflection of reality and that nothing can “save” us from feeling this way. That is simply not true.

What is feeling desperate telling your young person?

The message here is that they are not in control of their thoughts that are running the show and that are dragging your young person down a spiral of negativity that seems endless. This perceived sense of powerlessness is alerting them that they are in a sort of disagreement with themselves. There is something they really want in their life, but their unconscious may be telling them stories about how they can’t have that valued thing because they’re either not good enough, they don’t deserve it, or because they’re never lucky anyway. Whatever the reason their mind comes up with, your young person’s thoughts are standing in your young person’s own way. They feel defeated from the get go, and therefore they see defeat as the only possible outcome.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage feeling desperate?

Develop their awareness so they can easily identify feelings of desperation when they arise. Remind them that they can only change the things they are aware of. Awareness is key.

Don’t let their feelings of desperation take over their life. They can breathe and meditate to restore peace and quiet in their body and their mind. As long as there is chaos and loud chatter in their head, they will not be able to relax and have the clarity of mind necessary for them to be open for a solution to come to them and recognize it when it does show up.

Revive the spark of hope. Don’t let them ever give in to the fear that all hope is lost. There is always a way out of any situation. Hope brings inner peace and inner peace will empower and inspire them.

They feel JEALOUS

What is it?

According to Dr. Robin Stern, jealousy is an emotion a person feels when they are fearful of losing someone, something, or a relationship that is important to them. When it comes to jealousy, the situation usually involves at least three main participants: the person who is jealous, the person or the thing they are afraid of losing, and the person or persons they are jealous of because they represent a threat to whatever relationship is concerned. Jealousy is a negative emotion in and of itself, and it can easily snowball and lead to other negative emotions such as fear, distrust, or anger.

What is jealousy telling your young person?

Feeling jealous tells your young person that there is a part of them that requires their attention and some introspection. It’s also telling them that they need to work on a specific relationship or on some aspect of that relationship. Jealousy can also signal to you that they may be struggling with low self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, or with trust issues. No matter the situation, it should not be disregarded or ignored because, if left unaddressed, it can become toxic and breed fear of betrayal, distrust, and suspicion. This can eventually cause irreparable damage to the most beautiful relationships.

Suggestions for your young person on managing jealousy?
  • They need to be fully aware of their feelings, breathe deeply, and not give in to the temptation of acting on their feelings impulsively.
  • In the case of a love relationship, they should communicate with their partner. Be honest about their vulnerability and explain calmly and respectfully how they feel and why.
  • Strengthen their sense of self-esteem and address their wounds that may be causing them to feel insecure.
  • Help them learn to trust their partner, and above all, trust and appreciate themselves and their unique value.

They feel SHAME

What is it?

Feelings of shame arise when we think other people know something about us that we don’t want them to know because it would reflect badly on us. The thing we don’t want people to know is usually something that is an integral part of us, such as an aspect of our personality, a flaw, a failure, or anything else we think makes us unworthy and unlovable. Shame is also associated with our having acted in a way that is considered morally reprehensible and that is looked down upon by people or society in general. It can be experienced quite intensely and may lead us to think very negatively and harshly about ourselves. This is why people who experience shame often do all they can to hide what they’re ashamed of. They usually feel small, humiliated, exposed, and unworthy of love and belonging.

What is the emotion of shame telling your young person?

Feelings of shame are telling them something very important about their core beliefs about themselves. One of those beliefs is that there is something very wrong with them as a person. Shame, however, should not be confused with guilt. Feelings of guilt are about feeling bad about having done something wrong, while shame is about feeling bad about being wrong and defective in some way at the very core of you. Feelings of shame are alerting your young person that they may be experiencing some difficulties with their sense of self-esteem and their sense of self-worth, which could be a consequence of past experiences.

Suggestions for your young person on how to manage the emotion of shame?
  • Be aware! Develop their awareness and face their feelings of shame. Like it is the case with all negative emotions, the more you hide from shame, the more power it has over you. By facing and acknowledging their shame, they will take their power back, thus actively refusing to let it define them.
  • Don’t let anyone decide how they should feel, especially if they say, “you should be ashamed of yourself!” Learn the distinction between guilt and shame. Shame says “I am bad to the core,” while guilt says “I did something wrong.” Shame makes them feel like they are incapable of being a better person, whereas guilt motivates them to make amends and change for the better. Help them learn to choose wisely and in full awareness.
  • Help them learn to be kind to themselves and practice self-compassion.