The Longest Lasting Emotion and 4 Proven Ways to Loosen its Grip

Some emotions burst onto the scene and disappear just as quickly. Others stay for longer, as though there’s no place else for them to be.

In a recent study, researchers looked at 27 different emotions and gained fascinating insight into the average amount of time each emotion tends to stay.

Sadness is the longest lasting of all emotions taking on average 120 hours to pass. 

Hatred is the second most enduring emotion followed by joy which lasts an average of 35 hours.

Guilt lingers longer than the hot burn of shame; and fear tends to pass fairly quickly compared to anxiety which generally lasts much longer.

The stay-around power of sadness is likely due to its tendency to be associated with events that have a major long-term impact on people’s lives, such as bereavement.

The study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, found the reason some emotions stay around for longer than others is because of rumination – the tendency to replay or think about negative things over and over.

As explained by researcher Saskia Lavrijsen, ‘Rumination is the central determinant of why some emotions last longer than others.’

How to stop thinking the same thoughts over and over and…

Rumination is a proven risk factor for depression so seriously … ya’ gotta stop it. It’s not easy – I know – but here are four proven ways to stop rumination running away with your head.

  1. Exercise

    Physical activity interrupts negative thinking and reframes the way you look at things. This has been proven over and over and then a bit more.

  2. Mindfulness

    Bring yourself back to the moment (as opposed to thinking about the past or the future) by paying attention to what you hear, feel, smell, see and taste. This is about being present in the now. It’s important because it’s the only place we have any power.

  3. Worst case scenario

    This may sound counter-intuitive but stay with me … Think about the worst case scenario and ask yourself if you can handle it. This takes the steam out of the original thought that’s made itself at home in your head. Humans are resilient creatures and it’s likely that although the worst case scenario won’t have you pulling your ‘bring it on then,’ face, whatever it is you’ll be able to handle it. 

  4. Pencil in a worry break.

    Kinda like a date, but nowhere near the fun. Set aside a period of time each day, say 20 minutes, where you can go hard with your worrying. Worry it up like crazy. Worry about everything that’s been hassling you for attention. Then, at the end of your scheduled break – stop. When something starts clanging around the inside of your skull, remind yourself that you’ve made time later to deal with whatever it it. This works. Just try it.

What does it mean for relationships?

This finding gives fuel to the importance of being emotionally responsible with those we love (not to be confused with being emotionally responsible for them).

There’s a lot said around the idea that nobody can ‘make you sad/angry/ashamed …’, and for the most part, this is true. However in terms of intimate relationships, it’s something that has always sat uneasy with me. Let me tell you why.

Part of being intimate with another person involves dropping the walls, clearing the way for them to be closer to you than you would allow anyone else. This is intimacy – honest, generous, open, vulnerable, sometimes messy and when it’s at its best, phenomenal. 

When this is handled with love and respect, the relationship will be tight, strong and safe. When it’s not, it can be excruciating, perhaps bland, maybe lonely.

Knowing what we know now about the length of time sadness takes to pass, it’s clear how regular fighting, disrespect, nastiness or  indifference from one towards the other can kill a relationship and dampen a person. In stingy or hurtful relationships sadness will build on sadness. It’s why it’s critical to choose wisely who we love and who we open ourselves up to – or for how long we stay open to them.

Emotions are there for a reason … So listen.

All emotions serve a purpose. Sadness, for example, might alert us to a situation that requires change. It also has a protective function, a type of ‘time-out’ to allow for healing, reflection, or adjustment to new or overwhelming circumstances. Sadness signals to others that support might be needed, particularly as ‘Hey. I need you,’ isn’t something that tends to always flow easily from us humans.

Too much of anything though is never a good thing. Being mindful of an emotion becoming too consuming is the best fight against it taking you somewhere – like depression or illness – that’s harder to come back from.

One Comment

Matthew D

Thank you. This was well stated and helpful. Biggest compliment I can give.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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