In Defense of FeelingĀ Bad

By Nick Wignall

People don’t like feeling bad.

Whether it’s a mild twinge of hunger, a throbbing tension headache, or having a limb amputated, feeling bad is something we all prefer to avoid — and quickly, if possible.

Thanks to modern medicine, we’re increasingly able to do just that:

  • Got a headache? Pop some Tylenol.
  • Sinuses flaring up? Try some Allegra.
  • Knee still bothering you? Arthroscopic surgery doesn’t even leave a scar!

Of course, it’s not just that we dislike feeling physically bad. We don’t like feeling bad emotionally either.

Photo by Sydney Sims

Every day people walk into my therapy office hoping to feel better emotionally.

They want to be less anxious, less depressed, less angry. They want to be more confident and assertive, more cheerful, and of course, happier. They come looking for coping skills, transformative insights about past traumas, or simply a compassionate sounding board for their stresses and difficulties.

Other folks take medications to ease emotional pain or discomfort: Antidepressants to feel less down, anxiolytics and sedatives to feel less up, and mood stabilizers to feel more, well, stable. The most recent data suggest that 1 in 6 American adults is taking some form of psychiatric medication like the popular antidepressant Prozac or the anxiolytic Xanax.

And it’s not just adults. Increasingly we’re willing pay for and coordinate counseling and therapy services or use medication to try and help our kids feel less bad. Recent figures put the number of American kids on psychiatric medication at over 8 million — over a million of whom are under the age of 6!

Aside from professional mental health services like therapy and pharmacology, our culture is flooded with self-help programs and gurus offering the latest wisdom for “living your best life.” I frequently write self-help style articles myself, describing techniques or tips for feeling better by changing the way we think or trying our new behaviors and implementing new habits.

Clearly, we all want to feel better.

But what if all this trying to feel better is actually not such a great idea? What if — paradoxically — our increasingly strong desire (and ability) to feel good is actually leading us to feel worse?

Photo by Nikolay Tarashchenko

As humans, one of our biggest weaknesses is the temptation to take the easy way out. Specifically, our decision making often aims at quickly satisfying short-term impulses and desires at the expense of long-term goals and aspirations.

Case in point, my relationship with Apple products:

  • Did I really need a new iPhone this year? Definitely not.
  • Would the money I spent on it be better off in a savings account or investment fund? Absolutely.
  • Did I refrain from buying the new iPhone and save the money instead? Nope.

Short-term desire: 1.

Long-term goals: 0.

Maybe next time, Wignall…

Of course, failing to act according to our long-term best interest isn’t simply a matter of moral failing or poor self-control as our culture so often frames it. In fact, there are good reasons why we’re wired biologically to prioritize short-term pleasure and avoid short-term pain. In a world where simply staying alive was a 24/7 struggle — you know, the one we spent 99% of our history as a species in — this proclivity to only see the short-term timescale may have served us a lot better than it does today.

Civilization has outpaced biology.

Fortunately, many of us today live in an environment where there aren’t many short-term dangers to our survival. As a result, we are free to create and aspire to more lofty long-term goals and aspirations:

  • Living comfortably well into our 80s and 90s
  • Traveling the globe
  • Retiring at 65 and learning to play piano
  • Running marathons for fun
  • Volunteering to help those less fortunate

These are wonderful things. But most of them require being able to see and remain focused on long-term timescales without getting too distracted by the desires and temptations of the short-term:

  • It’s hard to get up before work and train for a marathon if we can’t see past the short-term comfort of our warm beds.
  • Having the resources to live comfortably at 90 probably means giving up some spending at 30.
  • Retiring and traveling at 65 may mean working instead of traveling at 25.

But I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.

We all know that when it comes to finances, for example , the short-term pain of not spending now is often a small price to pay for the often exponentially greater rewards of saving early and often.

Being willing to endure the discomfort of present saving is a necessary component of achieving future financial success.

What most of us are less aware of is how this process applies to our interior life just as much as our exterior life.

Photo by Ian Espinosa

Lauren, a former client of mine, always described herself as an introvert and uncomfortable in groups, especially if she was the center of attention. Lauren was also an executive for a multinational corporation.

Despite her best attempts at keeping her head down and out of the lime light, she was required to give large presentations from time to time. And as you might expect, the thought of giving these presentations made her extremely anxious, often to the point of panic.

She came to see me in therapy because her “Xanax wasn’t working anymore.” In order to “get through” these occasional presentations and keep up appearances as an effortlessly competent leader, she was in the habit of taking Xanax (an anti-anxiety drug) before she gave a presentation. This would give her almost immediate relief from her anxiety and allow her to give the presentation without being “too anxious.”

But over the past few months, the Xanax had become increasingly less effective, to the point where, minutes before her most recent presentation, she had taken a Xanax, it didn’t work, and she called off the whole presentation — much to the disappointment of her colleagues and boss.

She came to therapy desperate for a “technique” or “coping skill” that would — just like her old pal Xanax — immediately remove her anxiety and allow her to make her presentations again without getting too anxious.

I think my response to her request shocked her a little.

When I told her coping skills are the last thing you need, she looked at me with a unsettling mixture of fear and confusion, and politely asked, “Okay, so, what do I need?”

More anxiety, I replied.

Photo by Jordan Donaldson | @jordi.d

As I’ve written about before, anxiety disorders develop when we train our brain to be afraid of anxiety itself. And the best way to train our brain to be afraid of something is to habitually run away from it or try to eliminate or “fix” it. Both of these strategies reinforce our fear center’s incorrect appraisal that anxiety is not only uncomfortable but a genuine danger and threat.

In Lauren’s case, she had spent decades teaching her brain that feeling anxiety before a presentation was dangerous, both to her career (she might botch the presentation) and physically (she might feint and get a concussion). Every time she started to feel nervous before speaking in front of a crowd, she eliminated the problem (or ran away from it, depending on how you look at it) by taking a Xanax.

The trouble with this strategy is that while it lead to the short-term benefit of feeling less anxious, it came at the long-term cost of training her brain to view her own anxiety as dangerous. Consequently, the next time she found herself in an anxiety-inducing situation, her brain’s fear center lit up like a Christmas tree and made her feel even more anxious.

This created a viscious cycle of ever-increasing anxiety about anxiety.

Lauren was forced to come to therapy because she had trained her brain so well that even a drug as powerful as Xanax was becoming powerless to resist her brain’s fear of her own anxiety response. Since the Xanax wasn’t working anymore, she came to me looking for a “psychological tool” that would serve the same function of making her anxiety go away.

At this point, the problem for Lauren was that any sort of coping skill she might learn — deep breathing, positive visualization, affirmations, cognitive restructuring — would be interpreted by her brain as just another attempt to get rid of her anxiety, thus reinforcing the belief that anxiety was dangerous causing even more anxiety.

Any attempt at feeling less bad was going to end up creating more long-term anxiety and feeling more bad.

Over the course of several months, instead of giving her coping skills or relaxation techniques, I instead worked with Lauren to get our of her feeling good mindset and encouraged her to adopt a willingness to feel bad mindset.

If we wanted to reduce her anxiety in the long-run, she had to re-train her brain to believe that anxiety, while uncomfortable, wasn’t actually dangerous. And the only way to do this was for her to be okay with feeling anxiety and not run away from it or try and eliminate it.

To feel good, Lauren had to be willing to feel bad.

And sure enough, through a combination of exposure and response prevention and mindfulness, Lauren made substantial and relatively quick progress on her long-term goal of having less anxiety by being more willing in the short-term to experience the discomfort of anxiety without looking at it as a dangerous threat and trying to get rid of it.

Lauren never refilled her Xanax prescription and even started giving more presentations, often at large conferences and meetings.

Photo by Becca Matimba

The lesson Lauren’s story hopefully illustrates is that if we’re unwilling to feel bad in the short-term, we often end up feeling even more bad in the long-term because we teach our brain to fear our own emotions.

This process, then, isn’t limited to just anxiety:

  • In the face of significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, some people have the tendency to isolate themselves in order to avoid the pain of having to recount and reflect on what happened. The avoidance of sadness in the short-term is often a key driver of depression in the long-term.
  • Couples often avoid difficult conversations about their relationship for fear of “rocking the boat” or causing each other to feel badly. This avoidance of conflict in the short-term often leads to major resentment and anger in relationships in the long-term.
  • Folks who have trouble falling asleep often take sedatives or hypnotics like Ambien to help then fall asleep quickly and easily. Aside from the lesson it teaches the brain (i.e. to fear sleep), Ambien often interferes with both the quality and overall duration of sleep, in addition to sometimes scary side effects it can have.

Of course, we don’t want to feel bad unthinkingly. Sometimes when something feels bad it’s a sign that it really is bad or dangerous. The burning sensation on our hand when we rest it on a stove top is an important signal for true danger or threat.

But feeling bad doesn’t always mean something is dangerous.

We want our brains to stay sensitive to genuine threats and danger but also to be able to distinguish between a true danger and something that appears to be or feels like a danger (e.g. all “negative” emotions). And the only way to calibrate our brains for this distinction is to be mindful of how we respond to things that make us feel bad and be willing to feel them anyway.

Because if we’re unwilling to experience emotional pain—constantly trying to manage and control how we feel—we’re teaching our brain to fear any and every uncomfortable emotion.

And that’s a dangerous lesson.