Folks over 30 — or those who've seen the reruns — may recall the Stuart Smalley skits in 1990s-era episodes of "Saturday Night Live".
Those skits starred current U.S. senator Al Franken, who created the goofy, cardigan-clad character.
Stuart was renowned for repeating this self-help refrain: “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”
In one of the better-known Smalley skits, Stuart counseled Michael Jordan to embrace his negative emotions.
Stuart advised Jordan to simply accept thoughts such as, “I'm not good enough … everybody's better than me … I have no business playing this game.”
After Michael responded that he didn’t really have such thoughts, Stuart issued this classic self-help response: “Denial is a river in Egypt, Michael.”
As sharply — and hilariously — as that skit skewered self-help-speak, growing evidence suggests that Stuart may have been onto something.
Three studies, same conclusion
Earlier this year, Canadian researchers published the results of three clinical studies.
Each was designed to test the idea that acceptance of negative emotions yields better psychological health (Ford BQ, et al. 2017).
The biggest of the three studies lasted six months and involved 1,003 volunteers.
The participants answered questions designed to determine how they felt about experiencing certain emotions.
Its results showed that the participants who acknowledged and accepted negative feelings exhibited greater psychological health when they were evaluated six months later.
This study involved 156 volunteers who were given two minutes to prepare a three-minute speech for a mock job interview, in which they were asked to outline their skill set.
After finishing their speeches, they were asked to share how they felt about the task.
The participants who accepted negative feelings about the task showed less emotional distress than those who put on a happy face.
For the third study, the Canadian team asked 222 volunteers to keep a daily journal for two weeks, and record any negative experiences and their responses to them.
Six months later, each participant underwent a psychological assessment.
The participants who did not record uncomfortable responses to bad situations tended to have more anxiety and depression, compared with those who acknowledged their negative responses.
The Canadian researchers came to this conclusion regarding the outcomes of all three studies:
“These results suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”
Repression can harm your health
There’s growing evidence that repression of negative feelings can seriously affect physical and mental health.
Telomeres are the small tips on DNA strands that appear to protect your chromosomes, and shorter telomeres are believed to signal accelerated aging and increased risk for health problems.
And one intriguing study examined the effects of chronic anger on the length of men’s telomeres.
The results showed that men with chronic anger had significantly shorter telomeres, compared with their peers. (Brydon L, et al. 2012)
Other studies show that hostility raises blood levels of inflammation markers — including interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein — as well the risk of premature, cardiovascular-related death (Carroll JE, et al. 2011; Marsland AL, et al. 2008).
And there's evidence that failure to express anger can be literally fatal.
One study found that women who “swallowed” their frustration, anger, and hurt during arguments were four times more likely to die prematurely, compared with women who voiced their emotions (Eaker ED, et al. 2007).
Accept and release
Just because you stick your head (or your heart) in the sand doesn’t mean the emotion doesn’t exist.
You can either accept it or allow it to eat away at you. The choice appears to have real impacts on your health.
There are several tools you can use to manage and deal with difficult emotions in a healthy way.
The first step is to acknowledge, name, and accept negative feelings. And if negative emotions feel overwhelming, it makes sense to seek professional help.
Many people find they can release emotions like anger and resentment by exercising vigorously, or by hitting a pillow or punching bag until exhaustion.
And you may be able to prevent or reduce the buildup of negative emotions by talking to yourself (openly or silently) in the third person.
To learn more about that research, see Stressed or Upset? Talk to Yourself in a Special Way.
Tea and supplements may help
Specific supplements appear to ease the effects of stress and anxiety.
Clinical research suggests that two traditional “adaptogenic” herbs — Rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha — can help to ease stress and anxiety. Aim for 500-1,000 mg of Rhodiola and/or 200-400 mg of ashwagandha daily.
And L-theanine — an amino acid found in black and green tea — is clinically shown to reduce stress and anxiety at daily doses of about 200 mg.
A British study found that a (200 ml) cup of black tea provides about 24 mg of l-theanine, while a cup of green tea provides about 8 mg.
Most L-theanine supplements contain 200 mg per dose, which is what you get from about 8 cups of black tea or 25 cups of green tea.
Since those are bladder-busting amounts of tea, it’s good to know that Dutch researchers found that a cup or two can produce calming changes to human brain waves.