Acceptance of Negative Emotions Michael David Benhar, Ph.D.
Many people have been taught that “negative” emotions, such as anxiety and depression are to be avoided or reduced as much as possible. Moreover, oftentimes people equate psychological health with happiness and “negative” emotions as a sign that something is just not right. Clearly, excessive emotional reactions to a situation can negatively impact student learning and socialization. Overly controlled or excessive displays of emotions both have deleterious effects on the learning process by impairing student and peer interactions along with student-teacher communication (Meltzer, 2010). For example, higher levels of anxiety have clear negative implications that often impair concentration, memory retrieval, language usage and impulse control (Meltzer, 2010). However, slight to moderate levels of anxiety when taking an exam or performing an oral presentation have been shown to increase student performance.
The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions is considered an important component of academic and social functioning that allows students to modulate and direct their emotions toward positive uses. Unfortunately, approximately 17% of students with emotional, behavioral and learning disorders in the United States have difficulties regulating their emotions (O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). This inability to modify their emotions has a devastating negative impact on their academic and social performance. Therefore, students’ ability to manage their emotions is an essential component of classroom management that contributes toward effective learning in the classroom setting. Nevertheless, although most people cannot control how they feel or emote, they can choose the behavior they act upon. In other words, our focus as educators and mental health professionals should not be on diminishing students’ emotions, but rather, instructing them on how to handle and deal with these “negative” emotions when they arise.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT is part of the newest wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy that has focused on incorporating mindfulness-based skills, which can be defined as “paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity (Harris, 2009, p. 8). Traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy mostly focused on the interpretation of the situation to the individual and looking at the cognitive biases and distortions that have a negative impact. The goal was then to point out these cognitive distortions and teach the individual a more practical and healthy interpretation. However, ACT takes an entirely different approach by not reinterpreting the content of the situation, but rather, by reinterpreting your relationship to the content. In other words, the goal is not to change the content of the maladaptive thoughts but how you relate to them; if they are preventing the individual from living a value-filled life, then they are by definition, not helpful. This means that by changing one’s relationship to the words we say to ourselves in speech and in thought, we can take them along and still live a meaningful life. By recognizing that the words people say, and think are just words that we ultimately give meaning to, it enables the individual to make room for these unpleasant feelings that arise as a potential consequence of these thoughts and still choose an action that is in congruence with our values (desired ongoing actions). It no longer becomes a question of whether the thought is accurate or a distortion, but whether the thought is working for the individual to pursue a value-laden life (Harris, 2009).
Cognitive Defusion (Disentanglement). ACT has six core processes and it is beyond the scope of this article to present the entire framework including the numerous empirically-validated studies that support this therapy. However, cognitive defusion is one of the 6 core processes that is vital in changing our relationship to our thoughts that evoke anxiety, depression, compulsion, etc. Defusion means learning to disentangle from our thoughts and to recognize that what we think is not the same as who we necessarily are or how we choose to behave. Our thoughts are basically words that we think to ourselves and by clinging to them as representing some ultimate truth, we are often pushed around by them and even use them as an explanation for why we cannot act on behaviors that are important to us. For example, how many times have we thought to ourselves that I am too afraid and then justified our inaction because of our anxiety? By recognizing that the thoughts are just thoughts or words that pass us by just as cars passing by our home, we change the relationship and the power they have over us (Harris, 2009).
Acceptance (Opening Up and Making Room). Another ACT core process is acceptance or making room for uncomfortable feelings. By dropping the struggle with them and attempting to banish these unwanted feelings, we allow them to coexist in ourselves and in some manner, take them along for the ride so that we still act on our values. Much of traditional therapy involves getting rid of unwanted emotions and feelings. ACT conveys the message that feeling emotionally bad is part of the human experience and since life somehow always finds a way to evoke such negative emotions, the goal is not to run from them, but to somehow make room for them so that the individual can still pursue meaningful actions. Please keep in mind that this does not mean wanting or liking these ill feelings but having a willingness to allow them to be (Harris, 2009).
Helpful tips for teachers in relating to student anxiety (adapted from Harris, 2009)
Students can say to themselves “I can feel anxious and think at the same time;” “anxiety is visiting me, but it is not me”. I’ve been through this before;” and “I can do this action even though I feel afraid.”
Students can even name those recurring unwanted thoughts that oftentimes incapacitate them. For example, they can say, “here comes that doom and gloom story again.”
Teachers can help students to realize the distinction that their thoughts and the person are not the same. For example, students can say “I notice that I am having the thought that no one likes me.” By employing this usage of language, the individual begins to realize that thoughts come and go and we do not need to act on them unless they help us to live a meaningful life.
Breathing and relaxation exercises, such as focusing on where the anxiety is physically felt in the individual sends a message that the anxiety is present but allows the feeling to take place without running from it.
Implications for the classroom
Negative emotions can be very debilitating for students. Nevertheless, this means that it is incumbent upon teachers and other professionals who work with students to help students deal with their negative thoughts as much as possible. The real question is how is this to be achieved? One should not assume that these skills are automatically acquired without any specific formal instruction. Clearly, it is a skill that just like any other one needs to be systematically modeled, taught and practiced. Thankfully there are many techniques that illustrate the core processes within the ACT literature that can facilitate the willingness to experience unwanted emotions so that rather than running from them which always has detrimental consequences, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, etc., the individual can live a life that agrees with their core values.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Ca: New Harbinger Publications.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
O’Connell, M., Boat, T., & Warner, K. (Eds.). (2009). Preventing mental, emotional and
behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC:
National Academics Press.
Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at email@example.com.