Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
Whether stemming from a single harrowing event or prolonged exposure to distressing circumstances, trauma can leave profound emotional scars. To cope with overwhelming feelings of fear, sadness, anger, or helplessness, individuals frequently resort to the instinctual act of suppressing these emotions.
Emotional suppression, whether deliberate or unintentional, involves the process of stifling overpowering thoughts and emotions and is frequently regarded as a coping mechanism individuals employ in reaction to traumatic experiences. While emotional suppression may provide temporary relief and a sense of control, it often affects long-term mental well-being and can cause chronic health conditions.1
Peter A. Levine, psychotherapist and creator of somatic experiencing, understands that emotional suppression of trauma results in unresolved trauma. In his book Healing Trauma, he reflects, “The effects of unresolved trauma can be devastating. It can affect our habits and outlook on life, leading to addictions and poor decision-making. It can take a toll on our family life and interpersonal relationships. It can trigger real physical pain, symptoms, and disease. And it can lead to a range of self-destructive behaviors.”2
Understanding Trauma: Types and Triggers
Trauma, a term often associated with profound emotional distress, comes in various forms, each with its unique impact on an individual’s life and well-being. At its core, trauma represents an overwhelming experience that exceeds one’s ability to cope, leaving a lasting imprint on their psyche.
Physical trauma manifests as bodily harm or injury from accidents, falls, or other traumatic incidents. However, the physical pain, scars, and limitations that follow can extend beyond the body, affecting one’s mental and emotional state and causing psychological trauma.
Rooted in the mind, psychological trauma3 often results from emotionally distressing events like witnessing violence, emotional abuse or neglect, experiencing a natural disaster, or being a victim of abuse. This form of trauma can lead to various emotional and psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research from the National Institute of Health suggests that “trauma survivors who experience psychological distress may deliberately inhibit the behavioral expression of emotion.”4
Recognizing these common causes is essential in understanding the diverse range of traumatic experiences individuals may endure and how these experiences can lead to emotional suppression as a coping mechanism.
Distinguishing Emotional Suppression and Regression
Emotional suppression is the conscious effort to suppress or inhibit the outward expression of one’s emotions, often in response to distressing or overwhelming feelings. This means that individuals deliberately or automatically hold back their emotional reactions, concealing their actual emotional states from themselves or others.
Conscious emotional suppression occurs by exerting effort to keep discomforting thoughts, feelings, or memories out of your immediate awareness. This is also known as “shutting down.” In response to overwhelming emotions, people might resort to numbing themselves through activities like scrolling through their phones and binge-watching TV. These distractions, a temporary escape, make it possible to postpone confronting the uncomfortable emotions.
On the other hand, regression, often confused with suppression, is “the act of unconsciously blocking unwanted thoughts or impulses”5 and is often used as a defense mechanism against traumatic memories or experiences too painful to confront. In these cases, individuals might not realize they are blocking their emotions, making it even more challenging to identify and address this coping mechanism in trauma recovery.
The Impact of Emotional Suppression
The more emotions are suppressed, the heavier the toll on one’s mental well-being.
Studies6 consistently underscore the detrimental effects of suppressing emotions, showing a marked increased risk of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and various addictions.
Individuals dealing with trauma combined with intense emotions often numb themselves with various methods of suppression, sometimes turning to substances like drugs or alcohol. These substances offer temporary relief by blocking emotional pain and providing a brief escape from distress. However, over time, reliance on such substances can morph into dependence, as individuals seek them out whenever emotions become overwhelming or seemingly unmanageable.
While not all trauma survivors succumb to addiction, research shows a direct correlation between trauma and addiction. In the National Survey of Adolescents, “teens who had experienced physical or sexual abuse/assault were three times more likely to report past or current substance abuse than those without a history of trauma. In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure.”7
The concerning outcome of using substances to cope with emotions is the potential development of a damaging cycle involving addiction and continued emotional suppression. Instead of cultivating healthy coping mechanisms, individuals may perpetually turn to substances for emotional regulation.
However, emotional suppression isn’t limited to affecting mental health; it can also take a dangerous toll on physical well-being for various health conditions such as sleeping issues, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders. A long-term 2013 study alarmingly concluded that “emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer.”8
In addition to its adverse impact on mental and physical health, emotional suppression severely disrupts the healing process following trauma. The ability to acknowledge, express, and process genuine emotions is pivotal in trauma recovery, and suppressing emotions prevents this crucial step towards recovery.
Healthy Alternatives to Cope with Emotional Suppression in Trauma
Healthy alternatives to coping with emotional suppression can lead to trauma recovery by acknowledging and managing emotions constructively.
Here are some strategies and alternatives:
- Mindfulness, Meditation and Breathing Techniques: These practices teach individuals to stay present with their emotions without judgment. Mindfulness and meditation can help increase emotional awareness and reduce the impulse to suppress feelings, while deep breathing exercises can help calm the nervous system and reduce the physiological stress response.
- Journaling: Keeping a journal allows individuals to express their emotions on paper. It’s a private and therapeutic way to release pent-up feelings and gain insights into emotional patterns.
- Creative Expression: Engaging in creative activities like art, music, or writing can provide an outlet for emotions. Creating something meaningful can be a powerful way to process and communicate feelings.
- Physical Activity: Regular exercise has a positive impact on mental health. Physical activity releases endorphins, which can improve mood and reduce stress.
- Supportive Relationships: Sharing emotions with trusted friends, family members, or support groups can be therapeutic. Talking to someone you trust can provide validation and comfort.
- Self-Compassion: Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding. Instead of self-criticism, individuals learn to offer themselves the same support and empathy they would offer a friend.
- Seek Professional Help: If emotional suppression is causing significant distress, consider consulting a mental health professional who can provide specialized guidance, therapy, and treatment options.
Coping strategies vary from person to person, and what works best may depend on individual preferences and needs. Crucially, managing and processing suppressed emotions promotes overall mental well-being and is especially effective in trauma recovery.
Trauma Recovery with CALDA
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Accessed Online September 2023
- CALDA Clinic, September 2023. The Physical Consequences of Burying Emotions
- Pyschalive.org. It’s Not Your Fault, Overcoming Trauma
- Medical News Today, June 2020. What is trauma? What to know
- National Library of Medicine, December 2013. Expressive Inhibition Following Interpersonal Trauma: An Analysis of Reported Function
- VeryWellMind, March 2023. What is Repression?
- International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 2019. Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being
- National Library of Medicine, December 2020. Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population
- National Institute of Health, August 2013. Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up