Are Negative Emotions Bad for Our Health? Not as Much as We Think

From the angry CEO in the movies who has a heart attack to the numerous articles on WebMD suggesting why people should control their anxiety, negative emotions are commonly seen as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). While research has shown this is indeed the case for more intense negative emotions, the findings have been somewhat unclear for mild, everyday negative emotions. New research from Dr. Doan and colleagues suggests the relationship between negative emotions and CVD is more complicated.

The researchers gathered information from a large dataset where over 7400 British civil servants were tracked for 28 years. They looked at how negative emotions, such as depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and negative affect, influenced blood pressure at multiple points in time. The found that, as expected from previous research, high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms were associated with higher blood pressure (with the exception of negative affect). However, and just as important, they also found evidence that the absence of negative emotions also contributes to higher blood pressure as compared to self-reported moderate levels of negative emotions.

Thanks to this research, which was just published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we now know that you don’t want to completely shove away those negative emotions to avoid cardiovascular disease. Some of those mild, daily, negative emotions are a natural part of life and experiencing and being aware of them may be beneficial for health. This research gives more encouragement in looking at the whole person when preventing CVD, not just simple cut-off points, and clears the way for more informed interventions in the future.

Read more about research from the Berger Institute.

When Aggression is Protective: The Health Benefits of Destructive Behavior During Adversity

Behaviors such as bullying or stealing are usually considered destructive. Moreover, these types of behaviors are more likely to be seen in children who grow up with more adversity. Once thought as maladaptive, recent research suggests there may be some important benefits in certain contexts. Evolutionary approaches suggest that these behaviors are important for survival. In addition, there is some evidence that aggression can lower stress levels. For example, in multiple rat studies, researchers have found that biting suppresses the stress-induced chemical and hormonal response in the brain and body. Destructive behavior in general can also increase access to resources in some contexts, such as material goods gained from stealing or social status and sexual opportunity from aggression.

Given this body of work, Dr. Stacey Doan and colleagues wondered whether destructive and disobedient behavior, with its survival value in harsher contexts and effect on stress, might influence the physical health of those facing early adversity. The researchers surveyed 260 children on various risk factors for adversity and measured their chronic stress, also known as allostatic load, through urine samples, body mass index measurements, and blood pressure readings. Their guardians were also surveyed on various behaviors of the children, such as stealing, destruction of property, disobedience, and bullying.

The researchers found that these destructive behaviors can buffer the effect of adversity on physical health. In other words, among those with high levels of adversity, those who are destructive or disobedient show less wear and tear physiologically than those who are less destructive. They also found that these findings are more pronounced for men than for women. This gender difference was thought to be due to the idea that aggression is more encouraged and accepted in males than females.

This research, to be published soon in Nature: Scientific Reports, is an exciting step forward in understanding these behaviors more holistically and how they may contribute to the regulation of stress. Future researchers can build off of this new line of research and pave the way for more informed and effective interventions.

Resilience and Connections with Sleep and Health

Despite the fact that many children grow up in poverty, many exhibit resilience, or successful adaptation and competence. Recent data, however, has also shown that adaptation in the face of adversity often comes at a health cost. At the same time, there is much we do not know. Why does resilience lead to health cost? How can we mitigate these consequences?

With a generous grant from the National Institute of Health, the Berger Institute’s Applied Mind and Health lab is collaborating with the University of California, Riverside’s Adversity and Adaptation lab, directed by Dr. Tuppet Yates, to answer some of these questions. Dr. Doan and Dr. Yates have started gathering and analyzing data on a large, longitudinal study looking at a diverse sample, including 46% Latinx youth, ages 4-14. The data set followed 250 children and their caregivers through adolescence and examined stress, family, and personality characteristics. In addition, the grant funds new data at age 14, particularly sleep and health variables. Altogether they will assess children’s poverty-related risk exposure, academic competence, physical health, and sleep functioning. Adolescence is a critical period for identifying risk due to the lasting effect of health patterns that begin at this age. This study is an exciting move forward in learning more about this crucial time and what can be done in both research and practice to help these children and adolescents thrive.

How Early Conversations with Kids Affects Their Emotional Understanding

According to new research from the Berger Institute, the way mothers of different cultures talk to their children may affect kids’ understanding of emotions. In the past, research has shown that early conversations with children about emotions and mental states are instrumental in children’s later understanding of emotion.1 Researchers found that if parents talk to toddlers about wants and wishes, or preschoolers about what someone else might think or believe, these kids will score better on emotional understanding tasks over a year later.2-3 However, most of the families in these studies are White Americans. How do early conversations about emotions and children’s emotional learning look in other cultures?

We know, for example, that there are cultural differences between the East and the West. Americans tend to prize individual freedom and independence. As a result, they usually place a higher emphasis on individual beliefs and personal experiences. Meanwhile, those from collectivist cultures like China tend to value group harmony and emphasize the interrelatedness of all people.4 It would make sense then that children in a more collectivist culture would be trained to act in whatever way maintains harmony, regardless of what an individual is thinking or feeling.

And indeed, research shows that in America, Caucasian mothers talk with their children about wants, needs, and opinions much more than Chinese-American mothers.5 Another study observed that even when directly discussing emotions, American moms talk to their children about internal states—why people might feel what they do. Chinese moms, on the other hand, tend to have conversations about emotion that focus on expression—emphasizing social norms and discussing expectations for behaviors.6 Research also happens to show that Caucasian children are better at understanding the causes of emotions in other people and themselves.7-8

In the current study, Berger Institute researchers wanted to explore if these different topics moms discuss with their children explain the difference we see in children’s ability to understand emotions.

The researchers asked American and Chinese immigrant mothers to tell their children a story using a book with no words—they had to make them up! What they learned was that first, all moms talked more about behaviors when telling the story. However, Chinese moms used even less language about thoughts and emotions than American moms did. They also saw that, regardless of culture, the moms who talked more about thoughts and emotions had kids who scored better on a test of emotion understanding, and moms who talked more about behaviors had children who scored worse. Finally, when the researchers compared moms’ culture and mom’s word choice, they found that both help explain why American kids tend to score better on emotion tests, but culture plays a bigger part.9-10

So, what does this mean for parents?

If the goal is to increase emotional understanding, parents can work into their storytelling some conversations about what they, their child, and other people (real or fictional) may be thinking in different situations. This focus on thoughts and emotions (in addition to the usual focus on behaviors of characters) could help children learn about & understand the causes of emotions. This will not only help them better understand the their own emotions; it will help them understand the things their friends and family might be feeling. This understanding could help develop social competence and readiness for school. Whether this type of social competence is valuable may come back to culture and could be why mothers of different cultures talk to their children the way they do. It could be that one is seen as more socially competent in collectivist cultures if they know how to express emotions rather than understand them. Perhaps future research can tell us more about these cultural differences and how these early conversations with children and their related emotional understanding affect later life in various cultures.


1 Dunn, J., Brown, J., & Beardsall, L. (1991). Family talk about feeling states and children’s later understanding of others’ emotions. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 448.

2 Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. (2006). Mother and infant talk about mental states relates to desire language and emotion understanding. Child development, 77(2), 465-481.

3Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. (2008). Stepping stones to others’ minds: Maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotion understanding at 15, 24, and 33 months. Child development, 79(2), 284-302.

4 Tsai, J.L. (2007). Ideal affect: Cultural causes and behavioral consequences. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2, 242-259.

5 Wang, Q., Leichtman, M. D., & Davies, K. I. (2000). Sharing memories and telling stories: American and Chinese mothers and their 3-year-olds. Memory, 8(3), 159-177.

6 Fivush, R., & Wang, Q. (2005). Emotion talk in mother-child conversations of the shared past: The effects of culture, gender, and event valence. Journal of cognition and development, 6(4), 489-506.

7 Wang, Q. (2003). Emotion situation knowledge in American and Chinese preschool children and adults. Cognition & Emotion, 17(5), 725-746.

8 Wang, Q., Hutt, R., Kulkofsky, S., McDermott, M., & Wei, R. (2006). Emotion situation knowledge and autobiographical memory in Chinese, immigrant Chinese, and European American 3-year-olds. Journal of Cognition and Development, 7(1), 95-118.

9 Doan, S. N., Lee, H. Y., & Wang, Q. (2019). Maternal mental state language is associated with trajectories of Chinese immigrant children’s emotion situation knowledge. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 43(1), 43-52.

10 Doan, S. N., & Wang, Q. (2010). Maternal discussions of mental states and behaviors: Relations to emotion situation knowledge in European American and immigrant Chinese children. Child development81(5), 1490-1503.