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We’ve all been there. You spent weeks studying for the exam and got a B-, but your friend barely cracked open the textbook and somehow pulled off an A. You’ve had a crush on the same person forever, and you find out they asked someone else to the dance. Suddenly, you’re overcome by frustration, and it feels like you’ve been given the short end of the stick.

“It feels terrible,” says Rachel, a senior in Indianapolis, Indiana. “I feel vulnerable and hopeless, sometimes angry.”

“It just feels like you’re not where you should be,” says Tyler, a senior in Forest Park, Illinois.

While it’s normal to experience jealousy and envy at one point or another, these emotions can linger and even lead to aggression and depression, affecting your physical and mental well-being. In fact, a 2013 study of college students showed that “Facebook envy” (the type you get from scrolling through a newsfeed of other people’s vacations, relationships, and cool stuff) is linked to depression.

What can you do about it?

First, you need to figure out if you’re feeling envy or jealousy. Most people get these two terms confused, but there’s an easy way to tell the difference:

  • Envy: When you desperately want what belongs to someone else (e.g., incredible football skills, an endless circle of friends, that shiny new car).
  • Jealousy: when you’re afraid of someone “stealing” what you believe to be yours (e.g., your star role in the annual school play, your girlfriend or boyfriend). 

How is it that a good thing happening to someone else can feel so bad?

There are several “hidden” emotions behind both jealousy and envy.

  • Worry and anxiety: If you think about what you’re really feeling when you get jealous, it probably boils down to fear. It could be fear of losing popularity, respect, love, rewards, or opportunities—no matter what it is—you’re terrified that someone else will take it from you.
  • Inferiority and insecurity: These painful feelings are the building blocks of envy. You find yourself wishing you had someone else’s qualities (good looks), achievements (full scholarship), or possessions (cool threads). Sometimes, you might even wish you could switch places.

So why do we have these negative feelings?

The answer may surprise you: it’s likely our survival instinct.

Even though most of us will likely never need to outperform to survive, we still feel a strong desire to be the best—and to protect what’s ours—because we’re hardwired that way.

Here’s how biology plays a role in jealousy and envy:

  • The same part of your brain controls envy and jealousy. When you imagine someone taking something that’s yours, or feel that unfair pang of “Why them and not me?” your neural nodes of fear, anger, and disgust (the amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex) are activated.
  • With enough of a response from these brain nodes, we start to experience the social pain in a way that’s similar to physical pain. (No wonder it’s so uncomfortable.)
  • The threat of someone “challenging” your position by being better or “stealing” what’s yours is enough to send your body into fight-or-flight stress mode. The boost in adrenaline pumps up your heart rate, cuts your appetite, and increases cortisol. This “stress hormone” can diminish your immune system, increase your blood pressure, and even leave you feeling mentally foggy in the long term.
  • In especially bad cases, your sleep could be negatively affected by the heightened adrenaline in your body (which makes it hard to relax).

“Remember that we must learn to manage emotions like jealousy,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist in Olathe, Kansas. “It is not automatic and you aren’t likely to get it right all the time. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but do be thoughtful and learn from your experiences.”

Click on the example scenarios to help you recognize jealousy and envy in your life – and learn how to overcome it.

Why it hurts

Friends, like romantic partners, are precious. When someone is your best friend, you become vulnerable because you’re so close and rely on them for support. Even though it’s perfectly normal for them to spend time with other friends, it stings to think that they might be “replacing” you or becoming best friends with someone else.

Try this
  • Recognize that your jealous thoughts are not a reality. You might believe your friend is drifting away and won’t be as close to you anymore, but that doesn’t make it true.
  • Remember that just because your friend is choosing to spend time with someone else doesn’t mean that they value you or your friendship any less.
  • If you’re especially upset about a specific instance, give yourself time to cool off before talking to your friend about how you feel. It can be helpful to write out your thoughts in a journal to help make sense of them.
  • Try talking to a neutral third party about how you’re feeling. Most people have been through similar situations and it can be helpful to hear their perspective. Once you’ve acknowledged how you feel, try not to dwell on it. Think positively about how you can move forward with your relationship now that it’s changing. Can you schedule some one-on-one time with your best friend? Or reach out to your best friend’s new friend and try to bond with them too?

“Be reasonable. People are going to be social and they are going to have fun with others in addition to you. This is normal and not necessarily a sign of trouble.”
—Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist, associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Olathe, Kansas

“If I get envious, I just try to remind myself that what they have that I don’t have is for a reason. Besides, there’s probably something that they’re envious of me for! Jealousy is harder. If it’s jealousy surrounding a person, you have to remember that they are an individual and you can’t limit that person for your own wants.”
—Carissa, junior, Winnetka, Illinois

Why it hurts

Envy is within our primal instincts. It can even be observed in monkeys. In one primate study, monkeys were satisfied to work for slices of cucumber until they noticed that some of their peers were being fed grapes (a tastier treat) in exchange for their labor, according to researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. When the primates realized their peers were being fed grapes, they stopped working for cucumbers and started holding a grudge against the grape-earners.

Try this

Practice gratitude instead of comparing yourself to someone else.

“When you’re feeling envious, consider the things you have that you’re truly thankful for,” says Melissa Walker, registered counselor in Montreal, Canada. “This shouldn’t be just the stuff you own, but also things like your health, your talents, and the people in your life that you cherish. You could even make a list, which you can consult whenever you feel that way again.”

Stuck? Start by finishing the following sentences:
  1. I always have a good time when I’m with…
  2. I’ve been complimented on…
  3. One thing I’m really looking forward to is…
  4. One of my best memories is…
  5. I’m really proud of…

“I envied my friends because I thought that they were just so beautiful, and I really got down on myself for it. I had to step back and realize that I’m beautiful too.”
—Rachel, senior, Indianapolis, Illinois.

Why it hurts

You likely consider your partner to be a valuable part of your life, so when it feels like someone else is threatening to take that away (no matter who is “instigating” the flirting), you instinctively go on the defense—and get jealous—to protect what you feel is “yours.”

Try this
  • Recognize that your jealous thoughts are not a reality. You might believe your girlfriend or boyfriend is interested in someone else, but that doesn’t make it true.
  • Accept and admit to your jealousy. Allow it to exist without trying to force it out. Sometimes just being mindful and accepting of it is enough to diminish its hold on you.
  • Give yourself time to cool off before confronting your boyfriend/girlfriend. If your heart is racing and you feel panicked, wait at least a few hours before bringing up what happened.
  • You’re probably tempted to fire off a lengthy, angry text message, but don’t. Since the person reading your message can’t hear your tone of voice, a written confrontation can come off as very aggressive and cause a fight. If writing helps you get your thoughts out, try writing a letter without sending it, or just jotting down some pointers for yourself to bring up in a face-to-face conversation.
You’re not alone

Half of you who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said that you’ve felt jealous in the context of a romantic situation.

“Jealousy is often a very strong emotional reaction and since it is closely related to anger, we often strike out at those around us, doing more harm than good,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and associate vice president for academic and professional success at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. “Sometimes jealousy is valid, but our emotional reaction gets out of control.”

“The trick to getting over a pang of jealousy is to deal with it without acting out and nip it in the bud. Don’t fly into a jealous rage. Try to act mature and don’t put the blame on anyone,” says Melissa Walker, registered counselor in Montreal, Canada. “It also helps to voice it, no matter who you tell. Getting it out and in the open will help stop you from obsessing over it.”

Why it hurts

We’re generally raised to believe that life should be fair—that the harder we work, the more rewards we reap. Unfortunately, that’s not always how the world works. This false sense of “fairness” is what leads to envy, frustration, and disappointment.

Try this
Make an effort to be at peace with the fact that you’re not always going to be the best, but use this setback as motivation to improve. You can channel your envy into determination,” says Melissa Walker, registered counselor in Montreal, Canada. “The truth is that if you never once experienced envy and jealousy, you might end up satisfied with less than you’re capable of. Set goals for yourself, and focus on encouraging yourself to achieve them. Even if you don’t end up in ‘first place,’ you’ll still be further than where you started, and you can be proud of that.”

Most importantly, don’t let self-pity and discouragement sneak in and make you feel incapable.

“Break the cycle of negative thoughts and stop talking negatively to yourself. Pretend you’re cheering up a friend and talk to yourself with those same encouraging words. You’ve heard it, and there is a lot of truth to the power of positive thinking.”
—Dr. Laura Offutt, MD, teen health specialist and founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt

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Article sources

Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist, associate vice president for academic and professional success at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Olathe, Kansas.

Laura Offutt, MD, teen health expert, author, and founder of Real Talk With Dr. Offutt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Melissa Walker, registered counselor, Montreal, Quebec.

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