Unpleasant emotions are disruptive emotional reactions. Examples of unpleasant emotions include sadness, fear, anger, or jealousy. These feelings aren’t just unpleasant; they also make it hard to function in your normal daily life, and they interfere with your ability to accomplish goals.
It is important to note that no emotion, including an unpleasant one, is inherently bad. It’s perfectly normal to feel these things in certain contexts or situations. These emotions become problematic when they are persistent and interfere with your ability to live your life normally.
Everyone feels unpleasant emotions from time to time, but in some cases, these feelings can be a sign of a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.
This article discusses the different types of unpleasant emotions and what causes them. It also explores unhealthy ways of coping as well as some healthier ways of dealing with difficult emotions.
Types of Unpleasant Emotions
There are a number of different feelings that are often identified as unpleasant emotions. While such feelings are often a normal reaction to certain experiences or events, they tend to be distressing and unpleasant. Some common types of unpleasant emotions include:
- Anxiety or fear
- Contempt, hate, or disgust
- Regret or guilt
- Sadness, grief, or loneliness
Unpleasant emotions can stem from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes they are the result of specific experiences or events. For example, you might feel upset that your favorite team didn’t win a game or angry that your partner was late for a scheduled date.
Unpleasant emotions can also arise from:
- Relationship conflict: Problems that arise from interpersonal relationships are a common cause of unpleasant emotions. Such challenges can arise in relationships with friends, family, co-workers, or romantic partners.
- Unmet needs: When your needs are not being fulfilled—whether these needs are physical, emotional, social, psychological, or spiritual in nature—it is normal to experience sadness, anger, loneliness, envy, and other distressing emotions.
- Poor coping skills: Everyday stress can lead to a wide variety of upsetting feelings if you don’t have the coping skills to manage it. Poor coping skills often end up making the problem worse or introducing new problems to the situation.
Unpleasant emotions can be short-term reactions to the events that happen in your life, or they may stem from other underlying issues including unmet needs, relationship problems, or poor coping skills.
Unhealthy Ways of Coping
Unfortunately, people often turn to unhelpful or even destructive ways of coping with unpleasant emotions. While these might provide temporary relief, they typically make problems worse in the long run.
Ignoring feelings (like “stuffing your anger”) is not the healthiest way to deal with them. Generally speaking, it does not make them disappear, but can instead cause them to come out differently2 (so, you might yell at your child when you’re really upset about a situation at work).
Unpleasant emotions signal that what you are doing in your life isn’t working. So when you ignore them, you can’t make any changes, and you continue to experience unpleasant feelings.
Ruminating on Emotions
Rumination involves dwelling on anger, resentment, and other uncomfortable feelings. This amplifies unpleasant emotions, but it also brings health consequences.3 So it’s essential to listen to your feelings and then take steps to let them go.
Withdrawal or Avoidance
When something is distressing, you might find yourself trying to avoid it so that you don’t have to experience those unpleasant emotions. If a person or situation causes you anxiety, for example, you might take steps to avoid those triggers. The problem is that avoidance coping makes unpleasant emotions worse in the long run.
Destructive or Risky Behaviors
If you don’t deal with the emotions you are feeling, they can cause problems with physical and emotional health.4 This is particularly true if you rely on risky behaviors such as substance use or self-harm to cope with distressing emotions.
Feeling angry or frustrated can be a signal that something needs to change. If you don’t change the situations or thought patterns that are causing these uncomfortable emotions, you will continue to be triggered by them.
How to Cope With Unpleasant Emotions
Fortunately, there are more productive ways to deal with difficult emotions. These strategies can help you cope while also improving your ability to regulate your emotions.
Understand Your Emotions
Look within and pinpoint the situations creating stress and unpleasant emotions in your life. Looking at the source of the feeling and your reaction can provide valuable information.
Unpleasant emotions can come from a triggering event, such as an overwhelming workload. Your thoughts surrounding an event also play a role. The way that you interpret what happened can alter how you experience the event and whether or not it causes stress.
A key purpose of your emotions is to get you to see the problem so you can make necessary changes.
Change What You Can
Once you better understand your emotions and what is causing them, you can start taking steps to address the problem. Minimizing or eliminating some of your stress triggers may make you feel unpleasant emotions less frequently.
Some ways that you might accomplish this include
- Cutting down on job stress, often by delegating tasks, developing boundaries, and seeking support
- Learning the practices of assertive communication to manage relationship conflicts
- Changing unpleasant thought patterns through a process known as cognitive restructuring5
Not every source of stress can be changed or eliminated. It is essential to avoid ruminating about what you can’t change and focus on what’s within your control.
Find an Outlet
Making changes in your life can cut down on unpleasant emotions, but it won’t eliminate your stress triggers. As you make changes in your life to bring about less frustration, you will also need to find healthful outlets for dealing with these emotions.
- Regular exercise can provide an emotional lift and an outlet for unpleasant emotions.6
- Meditation can help you find some inner space to work with so your emotions don’t feel overwhelming.7
- Finding opportunities for having fun and getting more laughter in your life can also change your perspective and relieve stress.
Remember that everyone’s needs and abilities are different. The key is often to try a few other methods to find what works for you and your situation. Once you have found techniques that are right for you, you’ll feel less overwhelmed when unpleasant emotions arise.
Accept Your Emotions
Learning to accept unpleasant emotions is also an effective way of managing these difficult feelings. Acceptance means acknowledging that we are feeling afraid, angry, sad, or frustrated. Instead of trying to avoid or suppress these feelings, you allow them to exist without dwelling on them.
When you accept your emotions, you stop trying to minimize or suppress them. Instead, you acknowledge they exist but recognize that these feelings are temporary and cannot harm you.
Even if you tend to have a positive outlook, unpleasant emotions will happen. Knowing how to manage these responses can help you feel better in the moment and the future.
Research has shown that tactics like suppressing your emotions are ineffective and can even be harmful. So instead of trying to ignore your feelings, finding ways to understand, accept, and reframe your emotions is often more helpful.
Unpleasant emotions are normal and even expected. The goal isn’t to repress these feelings but to find healthier ways of regulating them. Building these coping skills can lead to greater emotional resilience and well-being.