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Vol. 10 #6 Acceptance of Negative Emotions

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