Unbearable Darkness?

Why negative emotions are good for your health

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Emotion phobia. That's what psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan says we have. We're afraid of our feelings, at least our darker ones, she writes in Common Boundary (May/June 1998). In a denunciation of what she sees as a growing cultural trend toward trashing the so-called negative emotions, Greenspan laments the widely held belief that good emotions can cure, while bad ones make people sick. Putting a negative label on dark emotions "is like blaming Pandora for opening the box," she writes. "What's in the box needs to be known."

Psychotherapist Roger Dafter traces the origins of this good-bad emotional dichotomy to a 1956 study which found that stress in animals increased the incidence of various illnesses. Based on that study and others in the nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology, which explores the connection between our emotional and physical states, many researchers and pop psychologists have jumped to the conclusion that negative emotions—anger, fear, sorrow—not only cause illness, but also inhibit recovery.

In a recent interview at UCLA, where he is associate director of the Mind-Body Medicine Group, Dafter argues that it's time to rethink the old research because it has been oversimplified to the point where patients often blame themselves for their illnesses.

Both Dafter and Greenspan argue that emotions are neither good nor bad; they're neutral. And both make a case for the role of negative emotions in the healing process. Dafter says we should embrace the "full spectrum" of our emotions, which are like an innate pharmacy, each one playing a role in the mind-body healing process. Greenspan suggests thinking of emotions as teachers. Sorrow teaches us about interconnectedness. Fear is a survival instinct. And anger indicates that something’s wrong that must be made right.

In fact, it can dangerous to think of certain emotions as positive, according to Rachel Naomi Remen, a counselor of critically ill patients and author of the popular Kitchen Table Wisdom (Riverhead, 1996). In an article in Advances (Spring 1996), Remen writes that positive thinking of this kind wrongly implies "a certain set of attitudes that may guarantee survival." It's how we deal with emotions that is or is not life affirming, she argues. In other words, the only "bad" emotion is a stuck emotion.

So how do we get unstuck? How do we draw on this innate pharmacopeia of feelings? By cultivating the art of mindful body awareness, or emotional intelligence, advises Greenspan, who lists five capacities that are essential: sensitivity (the ability to feel the emotion), literacy (the ability to distinguish between different emotions), mindfulness (the awareness of the emotion), flow (the ability to surrender to the experience), and intention (the ability to focus the mind). Combined, they allow us to ride a wave of emotion and use it for personal transformation.

Take the case of Leah, a compliant, unassertive woman with cancer who believed that her negative thinking had caused her illness. In therapy Leah eventually learned to connect with all of her emotions, which, according to an article by Dafter in Advances, "likely resulted in corresponding changes in biochemistry that positively affected her immune system." Leah has now been cancer-free for more than 10 years.

That's not to say that you can ensure recovery by getting in touch with your feelings. "Plenty of people don't get better," says Dafter, but they do get healed.

Cured. Healed. What's the difference? "Healing," he explains, "relates to the release of suffering." It involves the capacity to deal with catastrophic circumstances. "The person can be dying, yet the spirit can be healing. No matter what happens physically, there can always be psychospiritual healing."

It's an important distinction, he says. The question of how, or even if, emotions cause disease is different from the issue of whether emotions can abet recovery. The jury is still out on the first question, says Dafter, though there is research to suggest that some conditions (bronchia, for example) are related to certain emotional states. "Different diseases have different relationships to emotion," he says. As for recovery, he says that facing negative emotions can be helpful because it motivates people to action and gives them an opportunity for real healing.

We are beginning to move beyond the simplistic, good-bad emotional dichotomy, Dafter says, noting pockets of interest in mind-body healing at Harvard, UCLA, and other medical schools. "We have the mind-body technologies to improve health," he says. "If we applied this stuff systematically to a major medical center, we could eliminate suffering."