Positive Emotional States On Demand?

Demanding to create positive emotional states on demand is common misguided strategy that many fall into during recovery. While often we fear emotions because they turn into fear so quickly, we can also demand that we should be able to experience positive emotional states when we want to.  When we do this, we are generally trying to achieve a few basic goals:

  • We are trying to escape the emotional state that we fear and hate by replacing it with a positive emotional state.
  • We are attempting to eradicate negative states like sadness because we believe that we should always “choose happiness” or some such nonsense.
  • We think that we are incapable of “handling” negative emotions or that they will automatically lead to some form of disaster or catastrophe.
  • We are afraid that if we do not experience positive emotional states in given situations, that something is wrong with us.

Let’s look at why these goals can sometimes lead us astray.

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It would be great if we could just conjure up joy and happiness on demand, basking in them whenever we feel like it.  Unfortunately, we just don’t work that way. We don’t get to maintain control over our emotional state at all times.  Interestingly, and in my opinion, I think we have a far easier time at instantly creating feelings of sadness when we decide to do that.  We have ways to trigger those things almost on demand.  The same cannot be said for happiness and positive states. In fact, the harder we try to be happy, the less likely we are going to be to experience happiness.

Emotions.  So annoying, aren’t they?

Trying To Replace Anxiety With Something Else 

One of the most common reasons for trying to instantly create positive emotions – especially in the anxiety community – is to replace anxiety and fear with other things.  We do this because we fear anxiety.  We fear the fear itself.  We want it gone. Often, we try to achieve this goal by attempting to forcibly replace an anxious state with a happy or positive state. This doesn’t really work and leads to frustration. Remember that anxiety is part of our survival systems. Happiness is simply not. Nature was not dumb enough to let us escape bad feelings – that sometimes are needed to remain safe and alive – with happy thoughts. If you’ve been trying to do this, nobody would blame you for trying. If you can’t manage to make this work, don’t worry.  It was never going to work. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or beyond hope.

This does not mean that you must be anxious and afraid for the rest of your life.  Recovery can lead to happiness and joy and all those good things.  They just have to come organically. The recovery process is a way to allow that to happen naturally.

“I’m Supposed To Choose Happiness And Manifest Joy Through Positive Energy!” 

Don’t even get me started on this one.  Sadly, when anxious people go looking for help on the Internet, invariably they will run into some popular trends in self-help and personal development.  One of those is the concept of choosing happiness, vibrating at a higher frequency, and creating happiness. Let me be clear. That has absolutely nothing to do with recovery from an anxiety disorder.  Nothing.  At all.  It’s bullshit and causes more harm than good in our community.

Humans are designed to experience a WIDE range of emotional states.  We are capable of all of them.  Life – the universe – has a knack for creating all of them in varying intensities at various and often random times.  This is the natural order of things.  The idea that you should be able to engineer the universe and yourself so as to eliminate the parts of humanity that you don’t like is patently absurd and leads people – especially anxious people – into an endless spiral of analysis, evaluation, and attempts to engineer and micromanage emotions and thoughts.

If you are working from the assumption that you should be able to live in a positive state just because you’re choosing that, you can let that go. It doesn’t work that way, nor should it. Why take away a huge chunk of human experience?  We learn and grow from all of our emotional states. I’m just not on board with the idea that running from half of them represents some form of enlightenment or achievement. That’s silly.

This does not mean that you must become a member of the always negative and suffering club. It just means that sometimes we are sad, angry, disappointed, jealous, or regretful. Sometimes we are joyful, optimistic, welcoming, and forgiving. Sometimes we are simply content in a neutral emotional state. It’s all allowed and expected.  It all serves a purpose.  Demanding that you be able to create positive emotional states on demand because someone that uses the words “toxic” and “frequency” all the time is a bad plan that rarely works out well for an anxious person in recovery – or for non-anxious people in general.

“I’m Afraid That I Can’t Handle Negative Emotions.  What If They Become Permanent?” 

I talked about this in episode 112 (link below) of the podcast and on The Panic Pod with Josh Fletcher (link below).  Briefly, often we attempt to conjure up instant happiness and joy as a way to “counteract” negative emotions because we think we can’t handle them. That generally means that we fear that they will be permanent, will lead to deep depression, and or will drive us into uncontrollable states of sadness and low mood that we will never be able to recover from.  If you are trying to replace sadness with happiness because you are afraid that sadness will automatically become depression or will wind up being an uncontrollable state in some way, you’re likely fueling your fear with this frantic effort to save yourself from that imagined fate.

You always handle your emotions.  You don’t like how it feels, but that does not mean you don’t handle them.


“I’m Supposed To Be Happy Now!  What Does It Mean If I’m Not???” 

This often appears in the context of parenting and romantic relationships. When an anxious person finds themself in a situation that they expect should trigger positive emotional reactions – but they don’t get those reactions – it becomes far too easy to panic and begin a frantic effort to manufacture that reaction and that positive emotional state.  If you spend all of “date night” scanning to see if you feel love yet, then trying desperately to feel it, you know what I mean.  If you spend an hour at a playground with your small children or at your daughter’s wedding trying to feel the way you think you’re supposed to feel, you know what I mean here.

The issue here is that anxious people will often interpret this mismatch in emotional state – feeling neutral or anxious at a wedding for example – as some kind of failure or predictor of a larger issue. Not being instantly happy and joyful triggers an extended round of overthinking and rumination about maybe being bipolar, becoming clinically depressed, or being a horrible parent, friend, or partner. Anxious people often get stuck in a cycle of analyzing and interpreting every thought and feeling in an effort to judge safety or progress. If that analysis returns a negative result, fear is often the result as an anxious person begins to do everything they can think of to fend off their own failure or the horrible emotional fate they are convinced awaits them. Attempting to instantly create happiness or love is a way to “prove” that they are a good person, or safe from themselves.

If you are in this habit, that’s OK.  It’s understandable, but it’s also not required. You’re not broken, a failure, a bad person, or emotionally doomed if you don’t automatically experience joy when looking at your partner, your children, or a sunrise over the ocean.


Here are some other episodes of The Anxious Truth that might be helpful:

Episode 112 – Fearing Emotions And Treating Them As Threats

Episode 079 – Dealing With Emotions And Anxiety At The Same Time

Episode 199 – Crying And Expressing Emotions

Episode 185 – Finding Happiness Again One Step At A Time

I also did an episode of The Panic Pod with Josh Fletcher about fearing emotions.  You can find that here.



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Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Therapist-in-training specializing in anxiety and anxiety disorders. Author. Podcaster. Educator. Advocate. Former anxious person.