Caring for yourself

Avoid Avoidance & Accept Negative Emotions

5 minutes

The battle to push bad feelings away will make your life smaller over time. Learn how to accept & embrace negative emotions during life’s hardest moments.

Avoidance is the natural response to painful emotions like grief, anger, shame, and fear. So maybe you keep busy with work or play an endless stream of video games. Maybe you avoid going places that remind you of a trauma. Maybe you simply order yourself to stop thinking about what feels hard.

Avoidance works in the short term, but the battle to push hard feelings away will make your life smaller over time, leaving you with a long list of places you can’t go, things you can’t do, and topics you can’t think about.

The solution is somewhat surprising: accept the feelings you want to get rid of. People who find ways to accept negative emotions report higher levels of well-being, greater life satisfaction, and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.1

  • Tip #1
    Write about your thoughts and feelings

    Research shows that writing about difficult situations can boost mental and physical health. Just a few sessions of writing down your feelings can decrease PTSD symptoms and improve adolescent well-being.2

  • How to do it

    Take 15 minutes to write without stopping about the thoughts and feelings connected to a difficult experience. Don’t edit yourself, pay attention to spelling or grammar, or judge your work. Just keep getting words onto paper.

    For the best results, come back to this experience several times. Describing the hardship and how you’re feeling multiple times helps transform a chaotic jumble of thoughts and feelings into a story that makes sense.3

    One note: expressive writing pays off over time, but exploring difficult situations can make you feel worse in the moment. Don’t force yourself to write about a situation if you’re not ready or push yourself to dive deeper into an experience than feels safe.

  • Tip #2
    Be specific about negative feelings

    Feelings are complex. A single emotion, like anger, can vary in intensity, from frustration to rage and fury. You can have more than one bad feeling at a time, like being sad about a loss and worried about how it will affect your future. A feeling might show up mostly in your head, like sadness taking the form of hopelessness. Or it may appear in your body, like sadness manifesting itself as exhaustion and a hollowed-out feeling in your chest.

    Getting specific about what you’re feeling makes emotions easier to manage.

    • Vague statements like “I feel awful” don’t suggest a course of action. “I feel lonely” is more accurate and points you to a potential solution—finding someone to connect with.
    • Being specific about what you’re feeling can also help you identify links between your emotions and your body, so you can address the underlying cause of your headaches, upset stomach, or sleep problems.

  • How to do it

    When you feel bad, make a practice of naming the specific feelings you’re having. If you’re not really sure what you’re feeling, try looking up a list of emotions online. Picking from a list can help you hone in on whether your sadness feels like disappointment, grief, hopelessness, or heartbreak.

    Pay extra attention to combinations of feelings. This can be especially important when you’re angry because anger often masks more vulnerable emotions like hurt feelings, jealousy, or embarrassment.

    Once you’ve clarified what you’re feeling, you can explore what will help you feel better.

    • Is the intensity of your feelings so high that you need to begin with deep breathing to calm down your body or exercise to burn off some adrenaline?
    • Are any of your feelings connected to solvable problems? Tackling that problem will help you feel like you have agency and give you bandwidth to handle other emotions.
    • Would it help to share your feelings with someone else to get support, advice, or an alternate perspective?
    • Are unhelpful or unrealistic thoughts amplifying hard feelings? Naming these thoughts can help.

  • Tip #3
    Make space for negative emotions

    Sometimes, painful emotions feel too big and overwhelming to contain. It may seem like you’re being torn apart or stretched beyond your limits. Give yourself breathing room by making space for them.

  • How to do it
    • Instead of being caught in the flood of emotion, step back to observe what you’re feeling.
    • You might tell yourself, “This feeling isn’t great, but I have room for it.” Some people describe this experience as dropping their side of the rope in a tug-of-war with the unwanted emotion. The feeling is still there, you’re just no longer exhausting yourself by pulling against it.

Experiencing hard times and the pain that comes with them is part of the human condition. We can’t banish sadness, anger, and fear, but we can make those feelings easier to live with. Instead of exhausting ourselves fighting against negative emotions, we can make space for them, leaving us with more energy to turn toward the people and things we value most.

Other Lessons


  1. Brett Q. Ford, Phoebe Lam, Oliver P. John, and Iris B. Mauss, “The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 115, no. 6 (December 2018): 1075–92.

  2. Rachelle L. Dawson, Alison L. Calear, Sonia M. McCallum, et al., “Exposure‐Based Writing Therapies for Subthreshold and Clinical Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 34, no. 1 (February 2021): 81–91; Heike Gerger, Christoph Patrick Werner, Jens Gaab, and Pim Cuijpers, “Comparative Efficacy and Acceptability of Expressive Writing Treatments Compared with Psychotherapy, Other Writing Treatments, and Waiting List Control for Adult Trauma Survivors: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis,” Psychological Medicine (January 2021): 1–13; Alex H. S. Harris, “Does Expressive Writing Reduce Health Care Utilization? A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 74, no. 2 (2006): 243–52; Gabriele Travagin, Davide Margola, and Tracey A. Revenson, “How Effective Are Expressive Writing Interventions for Adolescents? A Meta-Analytic Review,” Clinical Psychology Review 36 (January 2015): 42–55.

  3. Travagin, Margola, and Revenson, “How Effective Are Expressive Writing Interventions for Adolescents? A Meta-Analytic Review,” 42–55.