Have you ever noticed that the strong feelings you associate with negative emotions like anger and jealousy have the ability to grab your attention again and again over hours, days, weeks, or sometimes years? Meanwhile, the so-called positive emotions like joy and contentment simply fade away? What is it about some emotions that make them seem so much more powerful than others?
Your Brain on Anger
You get stuck in traffic and are late for work, which makes you late to pick up your children after school, who then fight in the car and chew with their mouths open. And when one of them rolls their eyes when you suggest they eat a vegetable, you blow. Like a soda bottle that is shaken and shaken, you must let that fizz out. Unlike the soda, your bubbles don’t dissipate once released. In fact, the act of blowing up, losing your temper, or letting it all out often leads to more anger rather than less.
Anger isn’t a bad emotion. At times anger serves a protective evolutionary experience—it helps your brain to remember potential dangers and triggers heightened awareness when a similar situation happens. Today, anger is used less to help your fight-flight-freeze response and more to motivate you to stand up for what you know is right and to keep you from becoming complacent around injustice.
Your Body on Anger
What happens physically when you are angry? Your amygdala, the almond-shaped part of your brain responsible for the fight-flight response kicks into overdrive flooding your body with chemicals that are useful if you need to fight. Your breathing speeds up, heart rate accelerates, and adrenaline releases, which causes a hyper-state of arousal. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, the area that helps you to make good decisions and choices, is essentially taken offline by the amygdala.
According to psychiatrist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, what happens next is the real problem when it comes to letting go. The brain has a flagging system, like a memory bookmark, that saves the reference of the bad thing so that we can better avoid similar bad things in the future. Your brain is designed to hang on to those negatives for your safety.
Your Brain on Joy
The feeling of joy happens thanks to the release of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (DOSE). The DOSE chemicals are responsible for the experiences you feel associated with joy. Unlike anger and fear, these experiences don’t burn themselves into your memory on their own. You can help level the strength of neurological happiness circuits by purposefully replaying occasions and experiences of joy. Some psychologists call this memorizing the feeling. It’s a way to beef up neural circuits by encouraging them to fire together repeatedly. This translates to benefits like lower blood pressure, fewer and less serious colds, combatting stress, and makes pain easier to tolerate.
The Benefits of Letting Go of the Negative
Even the happiest people experience negative emotions like grief, sadness, fear, or anger. Being happy isn’t an absence of these feelings. In fact, a healthy person experiences a full range of emotions. Sometimes, however, even the healthiest mind can get stuck in an emotional rut. Part of this is ego. In her book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity, liberal political commentator and community organizer Sally Kohn writes that change will only happen, “when we start confronting hate with compassion rather than more hate.” When you are able to witness your pattern of anger, you gain perspective that can help you step outside your pattern. When you turn your attention from the past to the present you open yourself to new possibilities.
When you hold on to negative emotions you affect your health at a cellular level. The production of hormones is thrown off and the ability to fight infection drops. This isn’t just about anger. Many people choose sadness over anger but sadness is just anger with less intensity.
6 Ways to Make Letting Go a Little Easier
The powerful combination of physiology and repetitive thoughts can make letting go of anger a challenge. To make it a bit easier try the following.
- Action: It’s easy to get stuck in negative emotions when you don’t have anything else to do. Do something. Journal, run, paint, read.
- Connection: Find a friend. Not one to complain or vent with, but one who will get you out and get your mind on something else.
- Substitution: Nature abhors a vacuum which means you can’t stop something (like anger or jealousy) without replacing it with something else. You could try an affirmation like Winston Churchill’s: “When you’re going through hell—keep going.”
- Meditation: The ancient practice of focusing the mind strengthens both your ability to focuson something and to not focus on something.
- Be gentle with yourself: Getting angry or frustrated that you can’t stop your negative emotions gives them more power rather than taking that power away.
- Slow down: The type of semi-irrational thinking that creeps in when emotions start running away can lead to actions that can’t easily be undone or words that can’t be unsaid.
Negative emotions will always happen. The key is to feel them for what they are and then move past them. Don’t suppress. Don’t beat yourself up for having them. Keep reliving your moments of joy.
And in the words of romance writer Nicholas Sparks, “The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it.”
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