By: Becca Hirsch
Many of us spend a lot of time, money, and effort into making our tough feelings go away. When someone says, “I’m feeling really anxious” (or sad, overwhelmed, depressed, etc.), a common response is to see your doctor for medication, talk to a psychologist to work through it, or go do something that will distract you from what you’re feeling. The general goal of doing these things is to make us feel better, or to avoid sitting with feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and so forth. However, what ancient practices of mindfulness as well as modern science are now telling us is that it is actually more effective and better for our mental health to accept difficult emotions and learn to tolerate them over time to build resiliency, rather than to do everything possible to avoid them, make them go away, or numb ourselves to them.
Our culture places a lot of emphasis on feeling happy. We must do things that make us feel happy and avoid things that make us feel sad, or so we are taught. What we do not learn as children is that feeling sad, feeling overwhelmed, feeling shame, feeling anxiety, and so forth is normal and healthy. While it may be difficult to embrace those feelings, we can work on accepting them and being curious about them. Many clients seek individual therapy or couples/marriage counseling because they are having intense and difficult emotions due to a stressful situation happening in their lives, and they think going to therapy will help make the feelings less intense or go away. What many clients do not often realize is that therapy sessions with a psychologist or counselor will not “fix” your emotions or make them go away; what it may do is change how you view your emotions, how you relate to your emotions, and what meaning you give your emotions, which is likely to be better for your mental health overall.
Sometimes a goal in therapy is to better learn to cope with emotions and build up one’s tolerance to stress or anxiety, rather than to learn skills to intellectualize or minimize the stressful situation. Regardless of how minuscule the situation may seem, those emotions we feel about it are very real. When we start to view difficult emotions and feeling stressed as an evitable part of the human experience and teach ourselves over time that we can cope with stress as it comes up, it actually has less of an impact on our physical and mental health. These skills are something a counselor can help you work through during therapy sessions. Health psychologist from Stanford University Kelly McGonigal has conducted research that has shown us that it actually isn’t stress itself that is bad for us, it is how we view stress and how tolerant we are to stress that impacts our health. Her research has shown that stress is harmful when people believe it is harmful, as opposed to those who were tolerant and accepting of stress, who showed no side effects.
It is time that we all changing how we view stress and difficult emotions for the sake of our mental health and wellbeing. It should not be seen as something that needs to be avoided or to find a way to live a life free of stress; it should be seen as an inevitable part of the human experience that teaches us resiliency, coping skills, and as an opportunity to grow as a person. If you are having trouble managing stress, anxiety, or difficult emotions in your life, it may be helpful to consult a therapist to gain tools to better cope with stress and find meaning in it. Contact Symmetry Counseling to set up an appointment with one of our talented therapists, counselors, or psychologists at one of our two Chicago locations.