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The Healing Power of Negative Emotions

For caregivers, 'let it all hang out' can be a therapeutic prescription

En español | After his wife's cardiac arrest, the 70-year-old man carefully avoided saying anything negative. He feared upsetting her — and thereby inviting another heart attack.

Nor did his wife express her worries — her frustration, her sadness — for fear of upsetting him.

caregiver grief loss dealing death sadness healing power woman brunette CRC Barry Jacobs support cope (Corbis)

Sharing negative emotions in the wake of a chronic illness or medical event can bring couples and families closer together. — Corbis

Through this mutually protective collusion, the pair accentuated the positive so avidly that their rapport became superficial and stilted. Like so many caregivers and care recipients, the couple subscribed to "the power of positive thinking." What they missed out on was the healing power of sadness.

And that's understandable: The best way to sustain each other's morale through this medical crisis, they believed, was to cheer each other on. To accomplish that, the man and woman gave voice to almost exclusively upbeat thoughts and feelings. Venting negative emotions, in their view, could only harm their health, their psyches and possibly their relationship. But that needn't be the only way, and it's very likely not the best way.

Sharing what you've lost in the wake of a chronic illness or medical event, sometimes disparaged as "stinking thinking," can actually bring couples and families closer together.

Like others struggling to cope with adversity, the couple profiled above is engaging in what psychologists call a conspiracy of silence. Perfectly normal fears and other emotions churned up by a life-changing condition — the wife's fear of a second heart attack, the husband's frustration at his wife's slow recovery — are pooh-poohed or squelched.

Optimism counts; its effects are far more salutary than wallowing in misery. But when well-meaning family members start censoring what they say to one another, they stop sharing the full range of life's joys and sorrows. The result: unintended distancing and isolation.

To make that point, I frequently ask couples, "Did you argue, or complain to one another, before this medical event occurred?"

"Of course," comes the response.

I then ask, "Has this crisis made you less open with one another? Do you confide in each other less now than you did before?"

The reply to that is usually just an uncomfortable shrug.

A better way to bolster family cohesion and resilience in situations like these is to balance — or try to balance — the positive and the negative: Keep hope and good humor alive, yes, but at the same time feel free to voice your doubts, disappointments and anxieties.

How can caregiving families put the (seemingly) negative to positive use? Here are three ways:

1. Put worries into words

Throughout the caregiving years, all family members worry to some degree or another. It's a natural response to uncertainty; it's also a proven means of preparing for the challenges ahead. When family members hesitate to speak up, however, they often start to internalize their angst. If only they would voice their concerns! Doing so enables relatives to gauge (and possibly correct) each other's unrealistic anxieties, thereby gaining reassurance. In short, sharing worries can activate a family's comfort and support systems.

Next page: Announce annoyances and don't suppress sadness. »

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Video Extra

THE LIVES OF ELDERLY CAREGIVERS: A visit with a couple experiencing the caregiving stress of a retirement that didn’t go as planned.

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