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The Line Between Healthy and Toxic Positivity

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Having a positive outlook on life has been associated with overall well-being. However, positivity can become unhealthy. Toxic positivity is the effort to always feel positive, which can lead to suppressing emotions to keep looking on the bright side. Over time, this mindset can become problematic. 

Below we will explore the differences between healthy and toxic positivity and how they relate to substance use disorder (SUD).

Healthy Positivity

Research has found a link between an upbeat mental state and improved health. Positive health outcomes of positivity include:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Lower risk for heart disease
  • Healthier weight 
  • More balanced blood sugar levels
  • Overall longer life

Regardless of this established link, the mechanism behind it is not well understood and requires more research. What is known is that those with a more positive outlook tend to savor positive emotions. When this occurs, a part of the brain called the ventral striatum remains activated. This activation lowers overall stress hormones and keeps you feeling relaxed and happy for longer. 

Being positive also is found to improve overall mental health, as it helps decrease stress and improve thought patterns. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, positivity is one method of self-care that improves overall mental health and resilience. 

Toxic Positivity

While a positive outlook is beneficial, savoring a positive emotion is very different from suppressing a negative one. Positivity becomes toxic when it crosses over from noticing the positive to ignoring the negative. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) references toxic positivity in imagery and well as wording. In their Recovery Month Toolkit, they suggest avoiding images that portray that use toxic positivity phrases like, “It could be worse.” These images and the attitude as a whole encourage you to disregard your experience and emotions. 

Impact of Emotional Suppression 

Within a mindset of toxic positivity, you push away negative emotions to maintain a false sense of positivity at all times. This means pretending away or repressing any emotions that are not considered positive, such as anger, fear, or sadness. The act of emotional expression has been shown to have negative impacts on your mental and physical health. Research shows that emotional suppression is associated with an increased risk of the following:

  • Psychopathology
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • SUD

Physical impacts of emotional suppression include an increased risk of mortality, in particular for those with cancer. Emotional suppression can also impact blood pressure as well as overall stress levels. 

Toxic Positivity and Addiction 

Multiple connections between toxic positivity and addiction exist. 

First, emotional suppression impacts overall mental health. Addiction is commonly diagnosed with other mental health conditions, known as a dual diagnosis. An increased risk of mental health disorders inherently impacts addiction risk. 

Second, emotional suppression can lead directly to addiction as a maladaptive coping mechanism. When we do not want to or think we should not feel negative emotions, there is often an effort to cover them up, which is where substances come in. 

Using drugs or alcohol to feel different is common. It can occur with mental health disorders like anxiety or depression and is commonly called self-medicating. If you are in a mindset of toxic positivity, you may feel obligated to feel happy and positive. Alternatively, you may feel shame or embarrassment about healthy negative emotions. An effort to cover or change how you feel is understandable if the base concept you are working from is that you must be positive. 

Finding a Balance

Understanding the difference between healthy and toxic positivity is the first step. Learning to identify toxicity within yourself and find a balance is a bit more challenging. Setting realistic expectations can help. If you are in a transition, detoxing, or recovering from trauma or addiction, negative emotions are normal and healthy. Allowing yourself to work through these emotions, and in treatment learn new ways and methods to process them, is important. 

Negative emotions are part of being human. Feeling grief, sadness, or anger is part of the healing process. Permitting these feelings to be, pass, and change improves overall mental health, regardless of the immediate way they feel. If you can set your expectations in a way that involves negative emotions, it is often easier not to push them away, as they are expected and will pass. 

It can also be helpful to learn to savor positivity and find it in your life. This does not mean forcing yourself to feel happy but instead noticing when you do. If for instance, a certain song feels happy and joyful, maybe listen to it a few times and savor the feelings it brings. Some days you will feel less positive, and other days more. That is completely normal, and the feelings on a certain day will pass. However, as new events unfold and you find yourself feeling positive, take a deep breath and enjoy it. 

There are many mental and physical health benefits of positive thinking. However, it is important to allow yourself to feel the entire spectrum of emotions to avoid toxic positivity. This is especially important when processing trauma and change or working through addiction recovery. Negative emotions are a part of life, and feelings like sadness, grief, and anger are healthy and helpful. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, we help our clients to find a balance in regulating emotions without suppressing them. We teach clients tools they can use to improve overall mental health and overcome addiction through individualized treatment plans. Call us today at (949) 426-7962 to learn more about our services and how we can help you. 


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