The Upside of “Negative” Emotions in Coping with Parkinson’s

Coping with Negative Emotions with Parkinson's

“Perhaps the most difficult test commonly used for recruiting elite special forces soldiers has nothing to do with marksmanship or proficiency in hand-to-hand combat. It’s a simple jog down a remote road. Young men are instructed to don full gear and report to the starting point early in the morning, often sleep deprived and hungry. What makes this particular run unusually challenging is that none of the candidates are told the length of the course. Is it three hundred yards? Three miles? Thirty miles? 

The stakes are high as the recruits begin their jog into the unknown. Some sprint forward in hopes of being first if the run is short. Others pace themselves, carefully conserving energy in the thought that the run could turn out to be a marathon. Some keep to themselves, trusting in their resolve and determination. Others jog together as a group, shouting words of encouragement. Running with sixty-pound packs is tiring, but the physical exertion is less demanding than the mental strain. The pressure of not knowing the distance to the finish line pushes many to the breaking point.”  

– The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener 

When we came across this passage, we couldn’t help but think about our Parkinson’s community. 

The road ahead for people living with Parkinson’s is unknown and unpredictable, and it takes a physical toll, though different in every case. However, after working with people living with Parkinson’s for the past 14 years, we know that it’s the mental game that makes all the difference. 

Living with Parkinson’s creates psychological distress. The same can be said for maintaining good relationships, pursuing health, building a successful career, etc. And the people who navigate the journey most successfully are those who have a high tolerance for psychological discomfort. These are the people who seek positive outcomes but do not shy away from anger, frustration, jealousy, guilt or any number of other “negative” emotions just because they feel bad. Rather, they use these emotions to incite action, course correct, push harder and in the end, build greater resilience and strength for use now and in the future. 

We recently spoke with a woman who had a big breakthrough around her feelings of anger. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she immediately went into action. She enlisted the best healthcare providers she could find, she embarked on a rigorous exercise routine and she tried and tested a variety of complementary therapies. During these initial years, she spent whatever energy was left pushing down any “negative” emotions that tried to float to the surface.  

She continued on this course until she had no more strength to do so. And she, with the help of others, was able to identify and name how she really felt. Angry. She was profoundly angry about her Parkinson’s diagnosis. She was angry about what it took from her. She was angry that it found its way into every aspect of her life, and that it required her to change her dreams and her plans. And maybe even most distressing of all, it felt like it had given her no say in the matter.  

All those years she thought she was getting away with it. She thought she could suppress her true feelings and all would be okay. What she discovered was that not only was it not okay, but by not giving anger a voice, she was also missing out on the benefits she would have received by using that anger to her advantage.  

Once she embraced how angry she really was, everything she really felt, she chose to see her emotions as assets. Instead of weighing her down, they served as motivators and catalysts to do even more to help her live well with Parkinson’s.  

As Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say in their book, all psychological states have some adaptive advantage. There is no advantage therefore in labeling certain emotions as good or bad and then only pursuing good ones. Success is marked by an ability to navigate each and every one.  

“Simply put, people who are able to use the whole range of their natural psychological gifts—those folks who are comfortable with being both positive and negative, and can, therefore, draw from the full range of human emotionsare the healthiest and, often, the most successful.” 

What does this mean for you?

Perhaps it means very little. Perhaps you’ve learned this lesson already, and you embrace the painful emotions you have with as much fervor as you do the emotions that make you feel fabulous. 

If not, however, and you’re struggling to cope with your Parkinson’s diagnosis or what it demands of you on a daily basis, maybe it would be worth it to spend some time reflecting on this idea of psychological flexibility, the ability to hold thoughts and emotions lightly and include them all in every experience. 

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself as you investigate the “upside of your dark side”: 

  • How do you really feel about living with Parkinson’s? 
  • What emotions have you had throughout this journey that have surprised you the most? 
  • How have these emotions influenced you in the past? 
  • Is there anything you might be suppressing that you could frame in a different light? 
  • Have any of your emotions prevented you from living well? How so? 
  • How might you be able to use the painful emotions you experience to help you live better with Parkinson’s? 
  • Who could you enlist to help you navigate these emotions? 
  • Who inspires you? Is there someone in your community or in your Parkinson’s support group who you admire, and who you could reach out to about this? 

Every day we are inspired by the people in our Parkinson’s community who take actions to improve their quality of life and live well with Parkinson’s. We also know that because of the curveballs Parkinson’s throws, that those who are the most successful in navigating this path have learned how to include everything—both the joyous and painful emotions—into their lives. They learn to remove labels of good and bad from their emotions and to stop giving weight to preferences. They simply, and bravely, figure out how to embrace everything they may find in their psychological backpack. The light and the dark. 

Looking for some extra support? Reach out to an Ambassador today.

Our Ambassadors are volunteers who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. If you’re nervous about putting yourself out there or unsure of how to connect with others about your experience with Parkinson’s, connect with one of our Ambassadors and get the support you need.

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