Holiday Stress: Embracing Unpleasant Emotions for Better Health

Summary: December’s festive season often brings stress and disappointment, challenging the societal expectation of only positive emotions.

A new study shows how we respond to negative emotions is crucial for our mental health. The research suggests that accepting unpleasant emotions as normal, rather than judging them as inappropriate, leads to lower anxiety and depression.

The researchers advise that while it’s important to change stressful situations when possible, recognizing and talking about negative emotions as natural and temporary can be beneficial for psychological health.

Key Facts:

  1. Judging negative emotions like sadness or anger as inappropriate can increase anxiety and depression.
  2. Accepting negative emotions as normal responses can improve overall mental well-being.
  3. Discussing emotions with others and recognizing their temporary nature can aid in emotional acceptance.

Source: WUSTL

December can be an especially stressful time of the year. The holiday to-do list may feel overwhelming. Disappointment can swell if the “magic” of the season doesn’t live up to expectations. Even the thought of spending the holidays with extended family can trigger feelings of anxiety.

“Oftentimes, people feel guilty because society tells us that the holidays are supposed to be filled only with positive emotions. But this isn’t realistic for everyone, and it’s OK to feel stressed, overwhelmed, sad or disappointed,” says Emily Willroth, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

This shows a woman surrounded by Christmas ornaments.
Once we recognize that unpleasant emotions are natural, normal and likely to pass, we can begin to accept them rather than judge them. Credit: Neuroscience News

While unpleasant feelings are common during the holidays—and other times of the year—how you respond to those emotions can have an even bigger impact on your overall psychological health, according to a study published in summer 2023 in the journal Emotion and co-authored by Willroth.

Willroth and collaborators found that people who habitually judge unpleasant emotions such as sadness and anger as inappropriate or negative are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than those who are more accepting of these types of emotions.

“Our research suggests that it may be beneficial to accept those unpleasant emotions as normal responses to the situation that will likely pass with time, rather than judging those emotional responses as bad or wrong,” Willroth says.

Importantly, that doesn’t mean that you must accept the situations that led to those unpleasant emotions.

“It’s OK and often beneficial to try to change the situations that give rise to negative emotions,” Willroth says. “For example, you might make changes to a busy holiday schedule so that you feel less overwhelmed, or you might set boundaries with your family to reduce feelings of sadness or anger.

Many people judge their emotions from time to time, she says. For some, however, judging their emotions may be a routine part of how they respond to them. That’s where the trouble comes in.

It can be difficult to break habitual tendencies, but a good place to start is by recognizing that unpleasant emotions are a natural response to many situations and can even be adaptive, Willroth says. For example, sadness signals to other people that we need their support; fear can protect us from risky situations; and anger can help us stand up for ourselves and others.

Other research suggests that talking about your emotions with others can be helpful, Willroth adds. Once we recognize that unpleasant emotions are natural, normal and likely to pass, we can begin to accept them rather than judge them.

“If you notice yourself judging your emotions, don’t dwell on it,” Willroth says. “If you find that you frequently experience intense unpleasant feelings or unpleasant feelings that last a long time and that disrupt your quality of life, though, it may be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional.”

About this mental health and stress research news

Author: Sara Savat
Source: WUSTL
Contact: Sara Savat – WUSTL
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Judging emotions as good or bad: Individual differences and associations with psychological health” by Emily C. Willroth et al. Emotion


Judging emotions as good or bad: Individual differences and associations with psychological health

People differ in their initial emotional responses to events, and we are beginning to understand these responses and their pervasive implications for psychological health. However, people also differ in how they think about and react to their initial emotions (i.e., emotion judgments). In turn, how people judge their emotions—as predominantly positive or negative—may have crucial implications for psychological health.

Across five MTurk and undergraduate samples collected between 2017 and 2022 (total N = 1,647), we investigated the nature of habitual emotion judgments (Aim 1) and their associations with psychological health (Aim 2).

In Aim 1, we found four distinct habitual emotion judgments that differ according to the valence of the judgment (positive or negative) and the valence of the emotion being judged (positive or negative). Individual differences in habitual emotion judgments were moderately stable across time and were associated with, but not redundant with, conceptually related constructs (e.g., affect valuation, emotion preferences, stress mindsets, meta-emotions) and broader traits (i.e., extraversion, neuroticism, trait emotions).

In Aim 2, positive judgments of positive emotions were uniquely associated with better psychological health and negative judgments of negative emotions were uniquely associated with worse psychological health concurrently and prospectively, above and beyond the other types of emotion judgments, and above and beyond conceptually related constructs and broader traits.

This research gives insight into how people judge their emotions, how these judgments relate to other emotion-related constructs, and their implications for psychological health. 

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