Weight Stigma Worse for Health Than Being "Overweight"

Research shows that anti-fat bias has more of a negative impact than weight itself.

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As obesity rates continue to rise, healthcare providers have increased efforts to encourage weight loss in patients considered to be overweight in the interest of reducing associated harms like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, emerging evidence suggests that these efforts may also cause harm by promoting weight stigma, which has been linked with a range of negative health outcomes and an increased risk of death. Read the full story here: https://www.medicalbag.com/medicine/weight-stigma-vs-obesity-providing-compassionate-care/article/810901/ 💗


The Bettie Page Fitness Body-Positive Wellness Plan!

Forget all the complicated diets and scary exercise regimens. Stick to these tried-and-true basics for optimal health.

  The building blocks of the Bettie Page Fitness Body-Positive Wellness Plan! Do as many of these as you can on most days, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.

The building blocks of the Bettie Page Fitness Body-Positive Wellness Plan! Do as many of these as you can on most days, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.


[This info was the basis for last year’s Bettie Page Fitness Health Challenge. We will be doing the challenge again this November. To sign up, enter your email when prompted by the popup box when you enter this site, or shoot us an email at info@bettiepagefitness.com.]

As a psychotherapist, wellness coach, and health journalist with expertise in food and body images issues among others, I often find that when people want to improve their health or other areas of their lives, they feel compelled to make big, sweeping, fancy changes that are either impossible or unsustainable (not to mention joy-sucking and boring). What I’ve also learned throughout my many years of professional and personal experience is that the most effective approach to getting and staying healthy is to simply focus on the tried-and-true basics. This sometimes doesn’t appeal to people who are ready for things to be completely different RIGHT NOW and want that shot of hope that comes from planning to radically overhaul their lives (uh, diet culture, anyone?)

But the letdown when you realize it isn’t doable is more painful than the initial fleeting feel-goods. Diets don’t work, and you don’t need any complicated plan to make major, lasting changes. If you’re ready to give up those quick fixes that quickly fizzle and want to create sustainable changes that actually feel good, then focus on these 6 key areas and just do as many as you can on most days. Make a commitment to yourself to keep it judgment-free and weight-neutral, and keep your inner perfectionist out of it! This is about building a strong, healthy foundation and learning to listen to yourself and make decisions about your health based on what your body tells you instead of what any diet plan, magazine, fitspo page, your mom or friends, or anyone says. (That includes me – which is why these are all suggestions that you should adapt to your own needs.)

  Love this bo-po illustration… Does anyone know who the artist is?

Love this bo-po illustration… Does anyone know who the artist is?

This solid self-care approach will help you start shifting your thinking from an externally-focused viewpoint (based on calories, pounds, societal messages) to an internally-focused one based on how your body feels and what you know it needs. Note: You don’t have to love your body to improve your health; you only need to be willing to take care of it or at least to start working toward that goal.


The basic goals are summed up in the Bettie collage at the top of this post. You might want to save it to your phone or print it out so you’ll have a quick reminder of what you’re going for.

{Each day, thank your body when you wake up.}

♥ Be mindful. As much as possible, avoid distractions when you eat. Fully experience and enjoy your food. Same with exercise: Instead of just trying to get it over with, notice how your body feels as you do it, and appreciate all the countless cells and many systems working in your favor to allow your body to move.

♥ Listen to your body. Aim to pay attention to how it feels before, during and after eating and exercising. You might also start simply getting in the habit of asking your body, “What do you need right now?” even if you can’t recognize the answers yet. 

♥ Eat 5-9 veggies & fruits daily. Eat mostly plant-based (veggies, fruits, nuts, legumes, grains) whole foods – in other words, ones that aren’t overly processed – including at least 3 vegetables and 2 fruits daily, more if you’re already there (9 is the daily amount recommended by the USDA). Eat organic as much as possible, but don’t stress when you can’t. Your protein sources, of course, will vary based on whether you’re vegetarian or vegan or neither. Healthy fats are essential for everyone.

Drink at least eight 8-oz glasses of water each day, more if you’re very active. Coffee and all kinds of tea are generally great for our health, unless you have a particular reason why you're not supposed to drink them - so enjoy in liberal moderation (in other words, unlimited coffee still isn't a good idea. Well, only in theory.) This isn’t a diet plan; these are concrete actions you can take to improve your health. Don’t frame foods as “good” or “bad, and don’t be restrictive with your eating. Loving limits: Yes. Rigid rules: No.

♥ Move daily if you are able – whatever kind you like. The Bettie Page Fitness videos are great options for strength, cardio, and yoga, especially when you can’t make it outside or to the gym. Some days you might only have time for a 10-minute walk or quickie strength workout… and that’s okay. Bring your full attention to it and make it the best 10 minutes of your day! {Thank your body when you finish.} If you can’t manage any physical activity, do some extra rounds of breathing exercises to create internal movement – you’re still vastly improving your health by increasing oxygen and detoxing your cells, soothing your nervous system, increasing endorphins, and lots more.

♥ Relax. Be sure to carve out time regularly to do literally nothing, laze around with friends or your lover or dog, or whatever makes you feel relaxed. Even when we’re working on self-care, we need regular breaks from focusing on goals or it takes the joy out of it. If being with other humans rejuvenates you, then your relaxation time might sometimes include socializing… also a key component of optimal health, though some need more or less people-time than others.

♥ Sleep at least 7 hours each night. Most of us really do need 8, some need more and some less. But given our current global sleep crisis, a solid 7 each night is an excellent starting point. {Before you sleep, thank your body for getting you through another day.}


Now here’s the part that can be most challenging for many of us: Try to approach all of this with non-judgment, self-compassion, and curiosity instead of the fear and perfectionism that health plans can evoke. If you have days that you can’t meet all (or any!) of your goals, seriously don’t waste a minute judging and criticizing yourself for it. Let this be a truly healthy experience, and don’t bring any of that kind of dread and anxiety to this process. Instead, use that time and energy constructively and put it toward figuring out what might work better next time.

The main thing I want you to do is pay attention – to whatever thoughts and feelings may arise as you work toward your goals, any barriers that get in the way, and what seems to work well for you or not. Ideally, you will also take at least 10-15 minutes for self-reflection each night to record (in whatever format works for you) these observations in addition to noting how/what you did toward your goals that day.

When you’re done reflecting, do a breath-based or guided meditation for 2-5 minutes to sort of reset. Here’s one of my simple faves: Set a timer and do a 4:2:6 breathing pattern – Inhale deep into your belly for 4 counts, hold for 2 counts, then exhale completely over 6 counts. Just pay attention to your breath as you go, and when your mind wanders, gently return your focus to your breath. If you want to try different breathing techniques, check these out: https://bit.ly/2xxz7ug

At the end of each week, set aside more time for focused reflection to assess your progress, notice any patterns, and adjust your goals or strategy if needed.

That’s the basic blueprint! Tweak as needed to make it work for you. Stay tuned to this site and explore previous posts for more tips and articles about health, fitness, body image, Bettie (of course), and more!

Best of luck and warmest regards,

♥ Tori

Jungle Bettie's Fitness Adventures!

Some of my all-time favorite Bettie pics are the Bunny Yeager shots in that infamous one-piece leopard creation that our ever-resourceful queen made herself. These were shot in Florida at Africa USA in Boca Raton and on the beach at Key Biscayne. Bettie’s awe-inspiring fitness and flexibility are on full display as she climbs, hangs, crawls, and does some impossible balance maneuvers near a waterfall (even on wet rocks!), including an advanced yoga toe-stand looking move and a reverse tabletop pose – on her toes, of course – with a leg extension. So yeah, our queen was basically superhuman. Check her out!

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Was Bettie Page "Really" a Feminist?

She undoubtedly represents and contributes to women’s empowerment, but does the F-word apply to the Queen of Pinups?

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Bettie is often hailed as a feminist icon – and rightly so. As I wrote in The Little Book of Bettie: Taking a Page from the Queen of Pinups, she earned a bachelor’s degree at a time when less than 4% of women were college graduates, and she was the rare woman of her time who lived independently and supported herself. She unintentionally blazed a trail as a key figure in the sexual revolution and one of the top supermodels in history, despite having been rejected by Ford Models for being too curvy. She survived numerous traumas and other hardships throughout her life and has inspired countless women to live fully and freely in many respects.

Some folks debate whether she was “really” a feminist… she’s not on record as saying so definitively either way, but in an interview with Playboy, she was asked directly if she was a feminist. Her answer: “Women should have equal employment rights. A woman who does the same job as a man should get the same money.” Alas, women today make only about 80% of a man’s wages, on average, and this rate is even lower for women of color.

So, Bettie clearly had feminist leanings but then goes on to say: “As for women who don't want men to be courteous, to give a girl their seat on a bus, I don't go in for that. I think women should enjoy those niceties and courtesies from men.”

To each her own, but my thinking on this is that people of all genders should be equally courteous to each other and to the elderly, pregnant women, etc. I believe an able-bodied person in general should hold doors for others and give up their bus seat for an elderly or ill person. I also think it has to do with intentions and whether the gesture is rooted in gender stereotypes… For example, if a man is giving up his seat or helping a woman because he thinks she is inherently more fragile and in need of protection, that constitutes “benevolent sexism,” a practice that researchers have linked with rape culture and victim-blaming, gender inequality in the workplace, and even cardiovascular disease risk in women.  

And guess what else? Benevolent sexists will be chivalrous and adoring as long as you correctly perform your gender as they believe women should, but will reject you when you step outside those lines. So, benevolent sexism can be sneakily harmful in ways that are harder to discern and confront than with hostile sexism.

Side note: As for whether Bettie was “truly” a feminist, I believe that someone can contribute substantially to a cause (in Bettie’s case, feminism and while we’re at it, body positivity) even if it isn’t intentional and even if they don’t call themselves a feminist – although I highly recommend it, of course!

What do y’all think about all this? Comment below or on this post on IG or FB.

Bettie Page's Love of Fitness

Ahead of her time in countless ways, Bettie was working out long before most women were and kept it up throughout most of her life. Below is a brief excerpt from The Little Book of Bettie: Taking a Page from the Queen of Pinups.

  ~A gal's gotta stay fit if she's gonna spar with gorillas!~

~A gal's gotta stay fit if she's gonna spar with gorillas!~


Among the infinite reasons Bettie fans are awestruck by her: She just looks like the epitome of health and vibrancy in her photos, with glowing skin and more muscle definition than was common for women of her day. There is good reason for that. Bettie was the rare woman in that era who worked out—in a New York City gym, no less! Back then, women might use “reducing machines” designed to slim the body with minimal physical exertion, according to Natalia Petrzela, PhD, a history professor at the New School in New York City, and the fitness historian for Well+Good. These contraptions “were often adjacent to beauty salons or located in private homes—not in gyms, which were still considered the preserve of sweaty, grunting men and entirely inappropriate for respectable ladies who often kept their high heels on during a reducing session.”

Not our Bettie! It seems she was right there with those sweaty, grunting guys putting in some real work. She loved to swim, go dancing or walking, play sports, and do calisthenics. I’m also convinced that she was doing yoga. These various forms of exercise often showed up in Bettie’s photos—for instance a Camel Pose or Plow Pose here, a squat or a lunge or an ab crunch there. 

  ~Bendy Bettie ~ This pic appears in the   Bettie Page Yoga   video as the inspiration for   the Plow & Half Shoulder Stand poses!~

~Bendy Bettie ~ This pic appears in the Bettie Page Yoga video as the inspiration for the Plow & Half Shoulder Stand poses!~

This sparked my idea to create the Bettie Page Fitness workouts that are inspired by Bettie in several different ways. Each move in the workouts is based on a specific photo of Bettie, with an emphasis on the amazing balance, perfect posture, and core strength Bettie displayed. I don’t encourage women (or myself) to try to get the “Bettie body,” since her shape was largely determined by genetics. And while her body was undoubtedly spectacular, there are many different types of beautiful bodies, and not solely because of how they look.

If you study Bettie’s movements through hundreds or thousands of poses, you’ll notice that the great majority of them are big, open, expansive, and outward—you can tell she was unafraid to take up her rightful space in the world, both physically and figuratively. By emulating her body postures, we are harnessing that same energy and cultivating those traits. They are what scientists now call “Power Poses,” and they have been found to reduce stress, improve body image, and increase confidence. I’ve purposely included lots of power poses in the Bettie Page Fitness workouts, which also happen to be the first-ever body-positive fitness videos. 

  ~Joyful Bettie ~ This pic appears in the   Bettie Page Fitness: Total Body Strength & Cardio   video as the inspiration for the Star Jumps cardio burst!~

~Joyful Bettie ~ This pic appears in the Bettie Page Fitness: Total Body Strength & Cardio video as the inspiration for the Star Jumps cardio burst!~

Like Bettie’s fitness sampler platter, a solid exercise practice should include...

[Check out The Little Book of Bettie to learn more about Bettie and fitness, including two new Bettie-inspired workouts I created for the book!]

Missing Alexis

[Content warning: Suicide]

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The photo above shows me in the late 80’s with my first BFF, Alexis, who would have turned 43 today. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia after we graduated from high school, and she made the decision to end her suffering 17 years ago. I'm missing her deeply today as I always do. I would love to see her alive and thriving, but I'll have to accept that I can't. I'm infinitely thankful for the time we shared and that she still "visits" me sometimes in my dreams. If you have time for a longish read, here's a piece I wrote for her years ago and have revised slightly to reflect the passage of time. I hope you'll read it and hug your loved ones extra tight tonight in honor of my girl. I'll add more photos of Alexis to this post in the coming days. ♥♥♥

We were opposites from the beginning. It was Thanksgiving week, 1980, and our kindergarten classes were celebrating together with a bit of un-PC dress up that makes my grownup, feminist self cringe: Alexis was a Pilgrim and I was an American Indian. As with our costumes, the differences between us were plenty: she had olive skin, deep-brown hair and a small frame, while I was blonde and “big-boned,” as people (annoyingly) referred to my larger build. She was quiet, obedient and reserved; I was the loud-mouth, hyper and rebellious and always seeking out our next misadventure.

Despite this early encounter, it wasn’t until a couple of years later when we ended up in the same second-grade class that we actually became friends. All those differences fell away: we just clicked. From that point on we spent nearly every weekend at each other’s houses, playing Go Fish, having contests to see which of us could drink the most miniature-bathroom-cupfuls of water, trying to stay up “‘til the next day” and never once making it. One of our favorite pastimes was going to my brother’s baseball games and sloshing around in the creek behind the field, collecting overly-ambitious baseballs. When we went through our lazy preteen stage, we would lie on the couch for hours, her feet next to my head and mine next to hers, watching entirely too much TV. Headbanger’s Ball was the hands-down favorite, and our hair rivaled that of the men in the glam bands we obsessed about (we were in on the first round of Bret Michaels, for one).

Alexis was an artist and drummer and animal-lover, and she had a bunch of different pets at any given time, including a snake, birds and horses. She drew the most amazing, elaborate sketches of unicorns, maidens and castles, down to the tiniest detail. When my mind flashes back to one of those drawings, I’m awed at her talent and more surprised still that I didn’t recognize it as extraordinary at the time. I’m also pained by the thought that her rich imagination would eventually become her enemy.

There were other beautiful things about Alexis that slipped by me, too, like her protectiveness of me, her tender concern that is apparent only now in hindsight. As a teenager, I fell asleep in the school clinic after pretending to be sick because I’d smoked a joint in the woods near the school and since I was a weed rookie, I couldn’t keep it together enough to sit in class the rest of the day. No one noticed when school let out that I was still in the clinic snoozing. As my parents tried to figure out where I was, Alexis had another friend take her searching for me because she was too worried to sit back and wait for word of my whereabouts.

The saddest phase of our friendship was when our interest in boys blindsided us, at far too young an age, and tested our connection to each other. It never broke, but it still pisses me off that we were so wrapped up in getting attention from boys that we let it take priority over the special bond we had. I also regret having temporarily tossed her aside for another friend, one who matched my larger appetite for trouble - and a car to facilitate the mission, before Alexis and I were old enough to drive. This friend was absurdly jealous of Alexis’s exceptional lbeauty and didn’t want her around, and I didn’t protest like a friend should. I know now that it was all normal adolescent stuff, but it hurts so much more since I know I’ll never have a chance to make it up to her.

  Tori & Alexis circa 1991

Tori & Alexis circa 1991

As the frenzied searching years of our early adolescence settled into the more mellow late teens, Alexis and I began to regard each other with a familiarity and fondness that can only come from knowing each other nearly all your lives, much like I imagine sisters feel. Throughout high school, we were part of an inseparable quadruplet of girls (Ahoo and Liz completed the group) who bonded over hip hop, heavy metal, cigarettes, and excessive amounts of yapping and laughing. But as our senior year drew to a close, it seems we had all developed interests that diverted our attention outward. Alexis and I continued to check in with each other on a regular basis, but we made little time for each other as we became more entrenched in our first serious relationships. We were both partying way too much, but I was somehow managing to stay in college, studying psychology, while Alexis seemed to struggle with figuring out which direction she wanted her life to take.

I guess I should have suspected something was wrong when I called Alexis and she explained that she was about to move out of her condo because she was having nightmares and there were “too many bad memories” there. Maybe if I’d probed a little, she would have confided in me. I don’t quite remember the context, but I probably wasn’t expecting such a heavy statement. Maybe I just wanted the call to be quick and easy, a hi-just-checking-in-now-let-me-get-back-to-my-life call. So I didn’t push, and she didn’t offer any details. My heart drops to my stomach when I try to imagine even for a minute what I now know she really meant.

We spoke on the phone many more times after that, often saying, “We have GOT to get together – this is ridiculous!” She had moved back in with her parents in our old neighborhood – she was just a short walk away, yet somehow we couldn’t seem to connect in person. She did stop by my parents’ house once while I was out shopping with my mom, and she told my dad that she just wanted to come by and see the house where some of the happiest times of her life took place. They were some of mine too – me and my soul sister, together learning about life and love and each other.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I invited Alexis to my baby shower, and she said she’d come. The morning of the shower, I went to my parents’ house to get ready, and when my mom and I went outside to leave, there on the porch was a gift bag full of baby gifts with a casual note from Alexis saying that she couldn’t make it after all. It was obvious that we were home, yet she hadn’t even knocked on the door. That’s when it finally began to register that something was really wrong.

Just before my daughter was born, I moved back to our old neighborhood too. Surely, two childhood best friends could squeeze in some face time living in the very same neighborhood. But no, her puzzling avoidance and my airtight daily routine conspired to keep us apart.

I clearly remember the details of our conversation when we spoke in the spring after my move. It stands out because it was an upbeat conversation–and a real one, not just a gratuitous check-in. It also stands out because it was our last. She had recently started a new office job, and she really liked the people she worked with. We talked about my kid, just an infant then, and I insisted that Alexis come over to see her. We agreed that she would come for dinner soon but didn’t set a date. About a week later, I noticed her number on the caller ID but she hadn't left a message. That missed call still haunts me, of course.

The following week, after my family went out for Mother’s Day dinner, we gathered at my parents’ house. My mom checked her phone messages and there was one from Alexis’s sister saying she had some sad news. When I called back, her father answered and told me right away that Alexis had died. He asked how much I knew about the problems she’d been having, and I guess that in struggling with my answer I made it obvious that it wasn’t much. He explained that shortly after we’d graduated from high school, Alexis began having troubling symptoms and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. When it had become too much to bear she took a taxi to Walmart and bought a shotgun, then went to her favorite place in the woods just behind our neighborhood. I wonder what she thought about before ending her life there.

I went to her memorial service pushing my infant daughter in her stroller, hating the irony of the thought I kept having: “So this is how you finally meet my daughter.” I didn’t recognize anyone except her parents and sister. I longed to see someone we had both known, someone I could grab onto and cry, “Can you believe it?!” But instead I stood around awkwardly, at one point viewing the pictures of her on display. They showed the sweet, soulful, endlessly gifted and beautiful little girl I’d met two decades earlier at a kindergarten Thanksgiving party.

  Alexis in 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th grade yearbook photos

Alexis in 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th grade yearbook photos

I wanted her back so badly. Instantly I felt the crushing pain of knowing that we had lived just over a mile apart and yet hadn’t laid eyes on each other in years. It’s the kind of thing that you can’t rationalize, can’t explain away, not really. You just have to live with it. I didn’t make the time to see my best childhood friend even after it was obvious she needed someone, needed me. I took time for granted and just knew there would always be another day, another call. You also wonder, more so with suicide than with most other types of death, if there was something you could have done. Even though my mind knows it’s unrealistic to blame myself for a suicide, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just made more of an effort, really insisted that we see each other, would my presence in her life have made the difference?

I became a textbook case, going into denial about whether she was even dead, clinging to the remote possibility that she really wasn’t after all, that maybe she and her family had concocted the whole scenario to give her a fresh start in another country or as a different person. Crazy, I know, but still, I didn’t fully accept that she was gone until I ordered her death certificate and had it in my hands, facing the simple, brutal, final truth.

It’s been 17 years since her death, and when I think of Alexis, I’m indescribably sad that she had to go through all she did. I grieve the growing old she’ll never do and the family of her own she’ll never love. I mourn the gentle spirit and magical artistic talent the world will never get to experience. And I miss my oldest friend who knew me to my core, who loved and accepted me unconditionally.

I have dreams about her every once in a while, and in them it’s like we’re both aware that she’s gone, but there is a sense of peace and comfort as we talk and enjoy each other’s company like we did countless times over the years. That unmistakable fondness we had for one another is there too. In one dream, we were laying feet-to-head just like we did as kids, chatting away and lazily passing the time. I like to think she’s visiting me in my dreams.

At Alexis’s memorial service, I started to cry as I approached her mom. Trying to be strong, she hugged me and said, “Don’t.” But I do. I have many times, and I am now.


  • Please know that suicide is preventable, and having suicidal thoughts is not a flaw or sign of weakness.
  • If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
  • To learn more about risk factors and warning signs, visit afsp.org/signs

Maintaining a Body-Positive Fitness Focus

In "The Body" chapter of  The Little Book of Bettie: Taking a Page from the Queen of Pinups, there are two Bettie-inspired workouts -- the Pinup Power Pose Workout (strength & cardio) and the Bettie Page Body-Weight Workout (calisthenics – Bettie's fave!). Here are the tips from that chapter on how to keep it body-positive when you do these routines or any time you exercise. Enjoy!

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Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being

Feeling sad, mad, critical or otherwise awful? Surprise: negative emotions are essential for mental health

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A client sits before me, seeking help untangling his relationship problems. As a psychotherapist, I strive to be warm, nonjudgmental and encouraging. I am a bit unsettled, then, when in the midst of describing his painful experiences, he says, “I'm sorry for being so negative.”

A crucial goal of therapy is to learn to acknowledge and express a full range of emotions, and here was a client apologizing for doing just that. In my psychotherapy practice, many of my clients struggle with highly distressing emotions, such as extreme anger, or with suicidal thoughts. In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture's overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.

  ~Most or all of the images used for this article appear to be by an artist tagged AKG14~

~Most or all of the images used for this article appear to be by an artist tagged AKG14~

In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

Meaningful Misery
Positive thoughts and emotions can, of course, benefit mental health. Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction. Taken to an extreme, however, that definition is not congruent with the messiness of real life. In addition, people's outlook can become so rosy that they ignore dangers or become complacent [see “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?”].

Eudaemonic approaches, on the other hand, emphasize a sense of meaning, personal growth and understanding of the self—goals that require confronting life's adversities. Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life's ups and downs. “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences,” Adler says.

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Adler and Hal E. Hershfield, a professor of marketing at New York University, investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people undergoing 12 sessions of psychotherapy. Before each session, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their psychological well-being. They also wrote narratives describing their life events and their time in therapy, which were coded for emotional content. As Adler and Hershfield reported in 2012, feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time—for example, “I feel sad at times because of everything I've been through, but I'm also happy and hopeful because I'm working through my issues”—preceded improvements in well-being over the next week or two for subjects, even if the mixed feelings were unpleasant at the time. “Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being,” the researchers found.

Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts actually harbored more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue.

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Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it. In a 2011 study psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. Those who tried to muffle the thought reported dreaming about it more, a phenomenon called dream rebound.

Suppressing thoughts and feelings can even be harmful. In a 2012 study psychotherapist Eric L. Garland of Florida State University and his associates measured a stress response based on heart rate in 58 adults in treatment for alcohol dependence while exposing them to alcohol-related cues. Subjects also completed a measure of their tendency to suppress thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.

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Accepting the Pain
Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state. Many people find it helpful to breathe slowly and deeply while learning to tolerate strong feelings (see "Breathing Techniques for Less Stress & More Energy") or to imagine the feelings as floating clouds, as a reminder that they will pass. I often tell my clients that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more.

If the emotion is overwhelming, you may want to express how you feel in a journal or to another person. The exercise may shift your perspective and bring a sense of closure. If the discomfort lingers, consider taking action. You may want to tell a friend her comment was hurtful or take steps to leave the job that makes you miserable.

You may also try doing mindfulness exercises to help you become aware of your present experience without passing judgment on it. (See "How to Live in the Now" for a mindfulness primer to get you started.) One way to train yourself to adopt this state is to focus on your breathing while meditating and simply acknowledge any fleeting thoughts or feelings. This practice may make it easier to accept unpleasant thoughts.

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Earlier this year Garland and his colleagues found that among 125 individuals with a history of trauma who were also in treatment for substance dependence, those who were naturally more mindful both coped better with their trauma and craved their drug less. Likewise, in a 2012 study psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University and her co-workers found that a therapy that included mindfulness training helped individuals overcome anxiety disorders. It worked not by minimizing the number of negative feelings but by training patients to accept those feelings.

“It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts,” Sauer-Zavala says. Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key, she adds. Indeed, once my client accepted his thoughts and feelings, shaking off his shame and guilt, he saw his problems with greater clarity and proceeded down the path to recovery.


This article by Tori Rodriguez originally appeared in Scientific American Mind magazine. Tori is an Atlanta-based writer, psychotherapist, and mind-body health & fitness expert. She is the owner of Bettie Page Fitness, author of  The Little Book of Bettie, and editor of the official Bettie Page social media pages and blog.