Emotion Suppression: Effects on Mental and Physical Health
By MySahana on 28 Oct 2014
Sometimes when we experience a trauma such as a car accident, witnessing violence or abuse, our minds protect ourselves by shutting off our emotions. The same way our pain receptors shut off to manage intense pain, our mind suppresses strong, negative emotions during times of crises to protect our well-being.
However, suppressing your emotions consciously and deliberately in times when there is no trauma (e.g. death of a family member, loss of a job, argument with a spouse, anxiety for a test, etc.) can lead to damaging effects on your mind and body. Emotion suppression, which essentially is an avoidance of emotion, is a coping strategy that many people employ mistakenly thinking it is healthy or the right thing to do.
Common signs that you use emotion suppression as a coping strategy include:
- distracting yourself as a way to keep yourself from reacting
- avoiding talking about the situation because you don’t want to feel negative emotion
- avoiding places, people or objects that remind you of the negative emotions you don’t want to feel
- using substances (such as alcohol or other illicit drugs) to numb the pain
Many cultures, including South Asian culture, believe that emotion suppression is a particularly masculine quality and that emotion expression qualifies you as weak. Unfortunately, no matter how highly it is valued, avoiding your emotions never makes them go away and makes it more difficult for you to manage a similar situation were it to happen in the future. Research has shown that suppressing or avoiding your emotions in fact can make them stronger. For example, if you are sad because a family member passed away but want to avoid feeling the sadness, you may watch happy movies, try to keep your day as normal as possible and may even talk to friends as if nothing happened. However, the sadness is still present in your mind and a small hiccup in the day may cause you to seemingly overreact to the situation. Even if the object of your emotion is different, this is your body’s way of releasing the pent up emotions. Just as emotion suppression is your body’s way of protecting you during a trauma, emotion release in a non-traumatic situation is your body’s way of protecting itself from further damage.
Effects of consistent emotion suppression include increased physical stress on your body, including high blood pressure, increased incidence of diabetes and heart disease. In addition, people who engage in emotion suppression regularly rare more likely to experience stiff joints, bone weakness and more illnesses due to lowered immunity. Research has also shown a connection between avoiding emotions and poor memory as well as more misunderstandings in conversations with others. This is because people who regularly suppress emotion are often less aware of the signals they are sending to others and also less aware of the social cues present in daily conversation. In addition, when one or both partners engage in regular emotion suppression, communication skills often decline resulting in unhealthy relationship patterns and decreased satisfaction in the marriage.
Finally, men and women who avoid emotions, especially negative ones, are more likely to experience high anxiety and depression in their lifetime. While emotion expression is not always socially appropriate (e.g. you may not be able to burst into tears if in a job interview if you get negative feedback), it is important to be able to find a time soon after the situation to express your emotions in a healthy manner. For tips and guidance on how to best manage your emotions, please contact a local mental health professional for a consultation.