Long Reads

Stress and anxiety: could the best cure be embracing negativity?

Feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed by trying to stay positive? Rather than give in to the tyranny of constant self-improvement, perhaps it’s time we embraced our bitter selves and actually enjoyed it, suggests author Lotta Sonninen.

Back in the grim late Eighties, every Finnish preteen girl had a little book with My Friends printed on the cover. It was kind of like a stone-age social media app: each page had a set of questions followed by blank spaces for your friends to fill in. What’s your favourite colour? What’s your least favourite food? What do you want to be when you grow up? And finally: what are the things you detest?

There wasn’t much diversity in suburban Finland back then, and if there was, you sure weren’t going to show it. We all knew what you were supposed to write after the detest question: “Boys and war”. Boys, so that no one would find out that most of us were secretly rather intrigued by them; and war, so as not to seem shallow.

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But what we really detested, and what actually filled us with rage and resentment, we’d never have confessed. It wasn’t huge universal things like, well, boys or war – it was the petty things. Petty but personal. The teacher that made you stand out in P.E. class, or the horrible dress your mother made you wear, or that time your knickers showed and nobody told you. But of course, we wouldn’t tell anybody that. 

neon sign
Stress epidemic: “These days, it’s not enough to just accomplish things: you’re supposed to accomplish things and stay serene and stress-free about it”

There’s a tendency in today’s adult world that makes me think of boys and war. And I’m not talking about the things you love but aren’t supposed to admit to (such as booze/animal fat based foods/Eurovision hits) or the opinions everyone in your peer group knows you have (because they have them too). Instead, I’m talking about staying positive. 

These days, it’s not enough to just accomplish things: you’re supposed to accomplish things and stay serene and stress-free about it. You’re supposed to be mindful and meditative while running marathons (preferably barefoot) and never acknowledge the existence of any hurry or pressure, or the little nuisances of everyday life. You’re supposed to cultivate your creativity and stay thoroughly detoxed of envy, bitterness or any kind of negativity. And when these feelings inevitably hit you, you’re not supposed to let it show.

My My Friends book is long gone (although a satirical version called My Grown-up Friends was a massive bestseller among 30-somethings in Finland recently) but there is now a multitude of grown-up activity books specifically designed to help you get rid of stress and suffocate any nasty feelings about petty things. 

I’m a publishing editor, and recently the third self-help activity book in a row landed on my desk: funny, cute little mental exercises to stay positive in stressful times or get in touch with your creativity. I was helping to translate the books from English to Finnish, and by the time I got around to opening the third one I was at my wits’ end. If I had to find one more way of saying ”release your inner artist” or ”find the joy in everyday things” or ”just let your imagination flow”, my brain was going to burst. My vocabulary of positive words and phrases had finally become exhausted and dried up.

Because if these books are anything to go by, it really is no longer enough to simply try and improve your skills at work/fitness/meditation/sex/sleep. No. You should be interested in improving your self-improvement, too. Because, you know, you could always be more creative, more energetic, more mindful, more joyful, more playful, more grateful. 

colouring in pencils
Colouring in: “Colouring books aren’t really about having fun or relaxing. Things marketed at women rarely are”

This is where the new generation of self-help books step in with their relaxing activities. Do a little colouring! Make some funny lists! Find your crafty side! Write a nice story! 

Obviously, these books aren’t really about having fun or relaxing. Things marketed at women rarely are. And these books, along with most forms of self-help, are always meant for women. 

The hidden message is usually that you should never stop improving yourself, not even when you’re relaxing. Yes, you’re doing pretty well at juggling your work and family and exercise and beauty routines and so on, but are you being positive about it? Are you doing it harmoniously and in a stress-free manner? Well, you should be. Go on, grab your pens and colour in some unicorns, there’s a good girl.

woman colouring in
Stress therapy: “Personally, I’ve never found any joy or relief in the colouring of unicorns, or mandalas, or vases of roses”

Personally, I’ve never found any joy or relief in the colouring of unicorns, or mandalas, or vases of roses, or anything else along those lines. Ever since preschool I’ve always failed at colouring inside the lines anyway. Even now, those list-making and blank-box-filling activities still make me look over my shoulder for the teacher who will be over to check whether my answers are nice enough. You know, joyous enough. And as for releasing any inner artists I might have – oh please, nobody wants to meet those, myself included.

The three books I was editing eventually made it safely into Finnish bookstores, with all the nice and joyous words in place (of course, since I’m the worst kind of multi-tasking micro-manager). In the process, though, I got an idea for an antidote: an activity book that could be the home of every nasty word and phrase I could think of. 

While writing my book The Little Book of Bad Moods I realised how much I love wallowing in the negative side of things. Making lists of hateful people, awkward moments or idiotic social media updates makes me feel more harmonious than a thousand exercises in positive thinking. I could feel all the stress evaporating from my body while writing down messages I’d never have the nerve to send. 

Why let go of negative experiences or insulate them with fluffy thoughts, when you can relive them again and again, and feel a surge of lovely nasty energy every time? Why give in to the tyranny of constant improvement, when you could stay your bitter self and actually enjoy it?

Be happy: “All that calmness and serenity is so serious, it’s bordering on the grim”

I’ve noticed I emerge from these little mental practices with a refreshed mind and a feeling of contentment. Of course it’s ridiculous, but what’s wrong with being ridiculous? All that calmness and serenity is so serious, it’s bordering on the grim. A good heartfelt hate often has a little humour in it. More often than not, I end up my mouth twitching – at myself, too. Plus there’s the opportunity for personal growth: it can be very educational to notice you’re predictable in your hate too, and only think along the same lines. It’s always rewarding to try a new angle.

I believe that positivity is deeply personal, which is why I get suspicious when I’m told to flaunt it. Meanwhile, being negative is something we all share. It’s a box of treasures we carry around: constantly there, constantly full, constantly being loaded with fresh items. How about a new kind of resolution from now on? New week, old me, no improvement intended. I am reveling in the hate, and absolutely loving it.

Lotta Sonninen is the author of The Little Book of Bad Moods (Bloomsbury, £5.99), available now.

Images: Unsplash

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