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What to Do with Negative Emotions

The art of managing negative emotions requires following some rules. Negreanu, Galfond and Hellmuth share theirs.

Negative emotions are inevitable companions of every poker player, not only because of failures or the consequences of mistakes but also due to the pressure associated with risks outside the game. If you do not find a way to deal with them safely, you will face serious health consequences—both psychological and physical.

We offer you an insight into the scientific side of the impact of negative emotions on players and advice from poker professionals on how to get rid of them before causing yourself harm.

Here’s the English translation of the given text:

What Are Negative Emotions?

The complexity and variability of how people express emotions make their exact classification difficult. To simplify surveys and research, scientists use various models of mathematical evaluation of the intensity of emotions and the degree of their impact on people—an example can be seen in an extensive study by the University of Berkeley, which in 2017 identified 27 categories of emotional nuances.

Based on this research, we can conclude that negative emotions are those that affect your well-being and performance in a negative way, and also cause physiological discomfort.

The most commonly experienced among them in the population are:

  • Anger
  • Irritation
  • Fear
  • Disappointment
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Jealousy
  • Indignation
  • Overwhelm
  • Emptiness
  • Frustration
  • Helplessness

An important point to remember: not all emotions can be expressed in words—not only because of the difficulties in identifying and describing them, but also due to the limitations of a specific language.

Positive EmotionsNeutral or Mixed Emotions
AdmirationAcceptance
AffectionAttraction
DelightConfusion
CompassionCuriosity
EmpathyDistrust
GratitudeEmpathy
FascinationHumanity
AppreciationIndifference
PleasureNostalgia
JoyInterest
LoveSurprise
ReliefPride

How Negative Emotions Affect Poker Players

The 2015 study conducted by a group of scientists from Finland titled “Emotional and Social Factors influence Poker Decision Making Accuracy” revealed an interesting finding:

Negative emotions decrease the mathematical accuracy of decisions in poker.

Moreover, the player’s experience and whether someone is observing them at that moment affect the intensity of the emotional impact on accuracy.

Several other studies, with a general conclusion that can be found, for example, on the FHEHealth website, show that regular experience of negative emotions leads to spikes in stress and related hormones, which in perspective stimulates:

  • Increased blood pressure — potentially leading to the development of chronic hypertension.
  • Weakening of the immune system — resulting in more frequent illnesses, manifestation of previously absent allergic reactions, and even autoimmune diseases (where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells of the body, considering them pathogens).
  • Onset of insomnia — with the inability to sleep often accompanied by a feeling of profound fatigue that persists after sleep.
  • Appetite disturbances — under the influence of negative emotions, a person may either lose interest in food and experience nausea or have an increased appetite and a loss of satiety.
  • Digestive problems — due to the influence of hormones on gut flora and the activation of the body’s stress response, redirecting resources to urgent stress management rather than maintaining the usual functioning of systems.
  • Increased anxiety, irritability, and overall emotional instability — individuals become more sensitive to negative news and unpleasant events, while positive moments are perceived with skepticism or a weaker level of impression.
  • Intensification of muscle tension — which can lead to pain in various parts of the body.

Why Ignoring Negative Emotions Is Not an Option

Suppressing negative emotions—along with denying or ignoring them—does not help avoid the listed problems. Instead, it brings new ones, overall increasing the risks of developing and rapidly progressing cancer and cardiovascular diseases, as well as the person’s death. This conclusion was made by scientists from the universities of Rochester, Harvard, and Columbia during a 12-year study on the connection between emotion suppression and mortality.

Interestingly, a 10-year study on the impact of mixed emotions on adult health showed improvement when the frequency and gradual intensification of the influence were sufficient.

However, this only works in the case of a balance between both types of emotions. If a person experiences intense negative emotions and weak positive ones, their health—primarily mental health—rapidly deteriorates: they become less resilient to stress, experience difficulties with motivation, and struggle to maintain concentration.

How Poker Players Deal with Negative Emotions

In a recent game between Daniel Negreanu and Alexandra Botez, DNegs shared a personal secret of dealing with his negative emotions.

When something bad happens and I can feel being really tilted. I — internally — I just vent. «This idiot just played so stupid. That’s going to cost me the tournament. They have no chances! This is the worst player». I allow myself to do the full Hellmuth. I allow myself to do that — then I’ll sort of get present, say: «Okay, what am I feeling right now? What is the emotion I’m feeling? Okay, anger». And then I’ll ask myself: «What are the physical sensations? My heart’s beating, my feet are tapping, I don’t feel at ease. I’m uncomfortable».

So now I’m getting real conscious to what I’m feeling, then I’ll take three deep breaths at the table — eyes closed like whole new-agy — and then I’ll be like: «All right, what do I want to be right now? I want to be focused.

I want to be engaged. I want to be dominant — whatever it is». I’ve noticed — just by doing that practice of allowing myself to feel what I’m feeling — it’s not instant but a lot more quickly I’m able to be past.

Phil Hellmuth, despite being known for his public outbursts of anger in the face of failure, managed to build a successful career largely due to his good emotional control and attentiveness to them.

In his book “Play Poker Like the Pros,” Phil highlights three ways to deal with negative emotions:

  1. Don’t Focus on the Negative: In poker, it’s impossible to avoid unpleasant situations, but for your own good, it’s worth treating each one as an isolated incident. If you dwell on failures, the consequences of your mistakes, or other unpleasantness as a continuous cause for worry and anxiety, it will inevitably affect not only the quality of your game at that moment but also your attitude towards poker in general and your well-being.
  2. Avoid Overconfidence: Confidence is good; Phil is proud of his career achievements and doesn’t hesitate to remind others of them whenever possible. However, it’s important to differentiate between confidence and overconfidence, where you overestimate your abilities. If you don’t “keep it real” and strive for an objective assessment of opponents, negative emotions from any losses and setbacks will be perceived more acutely and pose a greater risk to your health.
  3. Eliminate Sources of Anxiety: If you have reasons for concern outside of poker—unpaid bills, lack of money to cover rent/mortgage payments, unexpected expenses, and the like—they will provide a backdrop of negative emotions that will worsen during play. To avoid overloading yourself with additional stress, address the root causes of worry before engaging in the game.

As a bonus, Hellmuth advises the same as Negreanu: allow yourself to experience negative emotions and blow off steam in the moment to avoid overburdening yourself with stress. However, it’s not advisable to follow Phil’s method of engaging in confrontations with other players or people around you, as this risks intensifying and prolonging the impact of negative emotions on your health.

Another Phil — but Galfond — in his YouTube video recommends two simple steps: take a break from the game and listen to yourself. Try to understand:

  1. Why do you experience unpleasant emotions—what causes them?
  2. What exact emotions are you experiencing—are they truly negative or are there mixed/neutral ones among them?
  3. What exacerbates your emotional reaction—what factors add depth and duration to it?
  4. What can you do to eliminate the cause of the reaction?
  5. Do you need the help of a psychologist or mental coach to work on your well-being?

By going through these points when faced with emotions, you’ll gradually begin to notice that identifying and experiencing them becomes quicker and easier.

How to Understand What You’re Feeling?

Identifying your own emotions and feelings is one of the most difficult parts of working with them. The main reason is that during childhood, a child primarily “learns” their emotions by observing parents and peers. If they are restrained or overly expressive, and if they don’t discuss emotions and their characteristics with the child, they will have problems understanding them in the future.

A special case is when a person encounters gaslighting.

Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone into doubting their own feelings, words, and overall perception of reality. When a parent or partner responds to someone’s complaint about their emotional state by saying they actually feel something else, that’s gaslighting. For example, you tell your spouse that you’re feeling sad, and in response, you get: “You’re just bored!”—your genuine emotion is devalued, and another one is imposed.

Since noticing such behavior from others during adolescence is difficult, you may enter adult life confused about your emotional reactions, their differentiation, and the reasons for their appearance.

To understand them, you can use several techniques, for example:

  • Reading — Comparison: Open a list of emotion descriptors alphabetically when you feel something—any emotion, not necessarily negative—and start reading them one after the other, watching your reaction to the term. When you feel a response to an emotion, open its description and read it, comparing it to your feelings.
  • Verbalizing thoughts and feelings out loud or writing them down by hand on paper. This will help you not only track recurring situations with similar emotions but also “unload” them from your mind. For greater effectiveness, use the structure: “I feel”—I feel angry, I feel annoyed, I feel uncomfortable. As you simplify the definition of emotions and feelings in the moment, add “because” to them—I feel angry because I lost a hand. This way, you can create a connection between the emotion and the situation that caused it.
  • Body “scanning”. Sit in a relaxed state, close your eyes, and focus your attention on any part of your body—for example, the big toe of your right foot. Gradually move through your body, focusing on what you feel during the process—you can verbalize this or write it down for further analysis.

Since a person may have problems defining emotions independently due to upbringing and environment, you can always turn to a specialist for help.

Remember that a good psychologist or mental coach doesn’t define your emotions for you but helps you understand from within what you’re feeling and why.