The dangers of suppressing emotions

The dangers of suppressing emotions - CALDA Clinic
Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

The interrelationship between mind and body has long been a fascination. In ancient Greece, Aristotle observed that emotions affect the body, and Greek physician Hippocrates held firm the belief that mental illnesses were the result of natural causes, not the supernatural as was widely believed at that time.

In recent decades, correlations have been more keenly observed between psychological conflicts, personality traits, and somatic* illness.1 Certainly in scientific literature, the links between suppressed emotions and physical health problems are now recognized. Generally, there is much greater acceptance of a holistic view of the individual. In many alternative health disciplines, emotional health is placed on a par with the physical.

Biochemistry explains how emotions share real biochemical links with your nervous, endocrine, immune and digestive systems. We know, for example, that fear raises cortisol levels, and that chronic and persistent activation of this survival mechanism impacts health.2

Effective regulation of emotions helps us to cope and operate in everyday modern life, but what happens when emotions get suppressed?

What is emotional suppression?

Emotions, or psychological states, are our natural responses to the world around us. The many different types of emotions, include happiness, sadness, surprise, contempt, anger, fear and disgust. There are lots of different emotional states that we move in and out of as we go through the day.

Scientific research has uncovered 27 varieties of reported emotional experience.3 But we don’t usually fully express every emotion we feel. We often down-regulate, change, or even fully suppress feelings.

Emotional suppression happens when uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are pushed out of mind. People do this in a variety of ways, from using distraction (i.e. watching TV), or numbing (through drugs and alcohol), to overeating or controlling food intake. People often channel strong emotions into physical activity (i.e. boxing, running, or going to the gym). Focusing our minds on something else helps us to forget what is really going on inside.

Evidence suggests that reappraising emotion (not the same as suppression) can be a good thing.4 Psychological flexibility is, after all, essential for coping. But emotion regulation is not aimed at eliminating emotions from our lives; it rather means using them flexibly and intelligently. This is to some degree essential. Imagine if we acted out every time that we felt angry! There would likely be many undesirable consequences in relationships at home and at work. Reappraising means we temporarily suppress feelings, but process thoughts later. When we don’t revisit – when we push feelings down – this is suppression.

Repressed emotions are those which don’t get processed and are pushed into the subconscious. These often relate to traumatic childhood experiences. If children experience trauma and aren’t given the space and care to process feelings, or if they are shamed or told they are wrong for expressing themselves, emotions become chronically suppressed.

Importantly, emotions are suppressed, the feelings will continue to exist.

Why do we suppress emotions?

There are many reasons why people suppress emotions. It can be to avoid a potent or explosive feeling that is deemed socially unacceptable, or to replace an uncomfortable feeling with a more acceptable one. We are influenced by expectations from other people in our lives. Anxiety and depression commonly develop because of narcissistic abuse. Trauma victims often find past experiences too difficult to process or are told they are wrong to do so.

Emotional suppression or inhibition is a necessity for most people, some of the time; it enables us to cope. People are expected, for example, not to spend the day crying from sadness at work. Modern society demands that we suppress emotions. We must put a lid on feelings so we can perform, whether that be at work or to survive in a dysfunctional family. In public spaces we are expected to act respectfully. Shouting with anger is frowned upon and most people don’t have the tools or confidence to express anger in a different way.

So, we suppress emotions to cope, to conform, because we are told to, to survive, because we are shamed, or because a trauma is just too painful to process.

What happens to suppressed emotions?

It is well known that suppressing emotions has a physiological impact on the body. Much of the time this is short-term and causes no lasting problems. But longer term, the continual suppression of emotions can have detrimental physical and psychological effects.

If you’ve ever had a deep tissue massage, you’ll know how stress can manifest itself in the tightening of muscles. Suppressed emotions stay in the body. The effects of suppressed emotions include anxiety, depression, and other stress-related illnesses. Such suppression can lead to alcohol and substance abuse. (Read more about the link between childhood trauma and addiction here.)

Individuals often suppress what they perceive to be ‘negative’ emotions as a way of avoiding distress. But continual emotional suppression requires effort and eventually this ‘effort’ can take its toll. The effort increases sympathetic nervous system activity which can have unhealthy consequences.

Research shows that bottling up emotions can make people more aggressive.5 Studies also show that effortful suppression of negative emotion has immediate and delayed consequences for stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity.6

Evidence for links between emotional suppression and mortality appeared initially in a Yugoslavian cohort study conducted in the 1970 by Grossarth-Maticeck.7 Long lasting hopelessness was independently associated with cancer, and anger with heart disease.

Another study on emotion suppression and mortality risk over 12 years of follow-up concluded that emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer.8

Strong emotions like jealousy, fear, anger, guilt or remorse, if suppressed, can have serious consequences.

The road to recovery at CALDA

Any person can reach a point in their life at which it seems they can no longer go on or they face great challenges. Traumatising childhood experiences, losses, separations, psychological or physical abuse as well as chronic stress can all be reasons for developing fears, depression, burnout, addictions or eating disorders. Sleeping disorders, flashbacks, weight problems and serious health risks can result. As shame, guilt and helplessness are difficult to endure, addictive substances like alcohol, tablets and drugs are often used to suppress painful emotions and thoughts.

Our offer aims at personalities who seek a highly private, tailor-made rehabilitation program, in a luxurious and exclusive environment. We offer the utmost modern and state-of-the-art medicine in combination with premium hotel service and highest discretion to overcome trauma and strengthen resilience.

Our clients are self-payers, which is the basis to enabling absolute discretion and privacy. If you would like to know more, please get in touch.

Reference sources

  1. Martin M J. Nov 1978. Psychosomatics, Vol 19 Issue 11 Pages 697-70. Psychosomatic medicine: A brief history
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. 6 Jul 2020. Understanding the stress response
  3. Cowen A S and Keltner D. 2017. PNAS September 19, 2017 114 (38). Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients
  4. Llewellyn N et al. Aug 2013. Emotion. Reappraisal and Suppression Mediate the Contribution of Regulatory Focus to Anxiety in Healthy Adults.
  5. Science Daily. 24 Mar 2011. Psychologists find the meaning of aggression: ‘Monty Python’ scene helps research
  6. Quartana P and Burns J. Sep 2010. Emotion suppression affects cardiovascular responses to initial and subsequent laboratory stressors
  7. Grossarth-Maticek R et al. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 1985;29(2):167-76, Psychosocial factors as strong predictors of mortality from cancer, ischaemic heart disease and stroke: the Yugoslav prospective study
  8. Chapman B P et al. J Psychosom Res. Oct 2013 Oct; 75(4): 381–385. Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up