The most anxious time of my life to date was soon after separating from my son’s mom. The marriage had turned out to be very much a mismatch, so I wasn’t unhappy that it was ending–but I was worried about my relationship with my then-2-year-old son. If I wasn’t able to work something out about custody arrangements with his mother or through a court, I might be relegated to the every-other-weekend schedule of parenting, and while that might be a good arrangement for many dads, I emphatically wanted to be more involved.
It all came out well in the end: after a lot of work and discussion, we settled on a workable arrangement for custody, and I never did get bumped to “every other weekend” status. So all that anxiety and unhappiness while the situation was up in the air: what was the use of it? To put it another way, do negative emotions have any value, or are they always trouble?
My friend Oz Drummond pointed me to a recent New York Times Magazine article called “Depression’s Upside“, which examines some of the potentially positive effects of some kinds of depression. The particular advantage the article describes is a neurological process in which a painful event (like a divorce or death of a friend) causes the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) to create intense mental focus on a problem, offering an unusually powerful ability to examine and possibly learn from it. This doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case with all depression, and even when it is the case, the person isn’t necessarily better off going through the depression than not. But we can pull a useful lesson out of this research, which is that negative emotions can be extremely useful in focusing attention. Some examples:
Anger: Focuses attention on a potential threat so that we can act against it if we need to.
Fear: Keeps attention on a dangerous situation so that we won’t drop our guard.
Guilt and shame: Brings our attention to actions we regret, with the possible result that we will avoid those actions in future.
… and so on.
In other words, many negative emotions have the specific purpose of making us mindful of something. There are two useful things that come out of this realization: first, when a negative emotion occurs, there may be a lot to gain out of figuring out what it’s trying to tell us. Second, negative emotions can often be addressed simply by paying proper attention to what they’re trying to tell us.
In the Times Magazine article, University of Virginia psychiatrist Andy Thomson talks about this process:
“What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings–led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities.
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