The Struggle Switch: Coping with Difficult Emotions

Dang, we humans are COMPLEX. We know how to make a lot of things happen outside our own skin – I mean, there are some people that are literally planning a trip to Mars. And yet, when it comes to our inner world, we struggle with our emotions, and our very attempts to get us out of trouble make matters worse.

Sometimes, we like to believe that emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety are due to terrible life circumstances or less than ideal upbringings. Think: “I am depressed and have low self-esteem because my parents didn’t really care about me.” Or, “no wonder I’m stressed and anxious – my boss is a tyrant!” And sure, our upbringing and environment can have huge implications for our mental health. But, a perfect childhood and low-stress environments do not guarantee a lack of psychological struggle.

Research has found that our coping mechanisms (the way we try to deal with emotions) can often INCREASE our suffering and struggle. Yep, you read that right. Trying our best to feel better can further drag us down into depression, anxiety, stress, or a lack of fulfillment.

Avoiding the negative stuff leaves you feeling, well, more negative

A common way we get into trouble is struggling against an emotion we experience. To put it into fancy psychological jargon, that process is called experiential avoidance (in case you’d like to impress friends, family, or coworkers at the next happy hour – you’re welcome). As humans, we don’t want to feel difficult feelings. So avoidance (or experiential avoidance) is our attempt to eliminate or get rid of that stuff. Typical forms of avoidance include distraction, suppression (just don’t think about it), or numbing with substances we put in our bodies (hello, glass of red wine after work!).

The problem is that when we struggle against our feelings, they tend to grow bigger. Because we are anxious, we then begin to experience other negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, and guilt.

Meet Justin: Successful and Stressed

At Therapie in Nashville, we work with high-functioning professionals. Let’s take Justin, an imaginary client. Imagine Justin had a relatively good upbringing and is not worried about his job and how to provide for his family. So when difficult feelings show up, he may resist them by saying something like, “I have nothing to worry about. Others have it much worse. I shouldn’t be depressed.” or “I shouldn’t feel stressed.” or “I shouldn’t feel anxious.” That seems like a fair attempt: Maybe I can rationalize and reason my way out of difficult feelings. Unfortunately, the inverse is often true. Not only does Justin feel anxious, depressed, or stressed, he also now judges himself for feeling that way. “What the heck is wrong with me. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” So his attempt to make things better for him actually provides further suffering. How’s that for a negative spiral? Yikes!

Enter: The Struggle Switch

Alright, alright. I’ll stop with the bad news. You get the idea. Avoidance doesn’t work – and it’s often the first thing we as humans gravitate toward to make things better. So you might be asking, “what should I do then?” Well, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy(one of the modalities we use at Therapie) has something to say about that. Russ Harris coined the idea of a “struggle switch.” Instead of struggling against painful emotions (struggle switch on), the idea is to notice when you are engaging in struggling against that stuff and, well, turn the switch off. Dr. Harris made a little video to illustrate the concept. Give it a try, and see if you can turn off your struggle switch!