Suppose you are upset over how your boss criticized you at work and now you are completely engrossed in ruminating over the conversation and the feelings of worthlessness shame, guilt, self-loathing that the incident triggered in you. It is very likely that you would keep yourself busy by watching tv, reading books or playing games over the phone just to distract yourself from all the unhealthy thoughts plaguing your mind.
Instead of trying to find out ‘whys’ and ‘what’ of the incident, you end up trying to distract yourself from the emotion which again is a useless way of coping.
Distraction can be temporarily beneficial but over time it will come out in sneaky ways like through displacement – in which you will ultimately end up unconsciously displacing these suppressed emotions on people and things other than the actual trigger.
Why is avoiding our true feelings maladaptive for our mental health?
Feelings, thoughts, and emotions we experience over our lifetime are never completely forgotten. Unwanted feelings, desires, and emotions which are unacceptable to society make it difficult for us to freely express them.
Some desires and impulses like hatred, jealousy and sexual impulses are destructive in nature if acted on and can get us in trouble if fully expressed, so we find it legitimate to push them within ourselves rather than express them. When we hinder our natural flow of emotions, we are not being genuine to ourselves.
Unexpressed emotions are badly regulated emotions. We think of these emotions as forgotten but in reality, you are actually pushing it to your subconsciousness. Suppressed emotions are nothing but extra energy that you are carrying within yourself which interferes with the homeostasis of the organism.
As you keep suppressing emotions over a longer period of time, you make it stronger as you are not allowing it to dissipate through any means.
Keeping on pushing your unacceptable impulses and emotions at the back of your mind instead of addressing them or releasing it through cathartic means, it will one-day build-up to the point of leaking through more dangerous means. Imagine a water pipe with a vault on it. The more the volume of water flows through the pipe, the higher the pressure and unless you release the vault, the pipe will start leaking from cracks.
Suppressed emotions find a way through recurrently disturbing nightmares and dreams.
Concealing emotions can give rise to stress-related physiological reactions like an increase in heart rate, lightheadedness, dryness of mouth, etc. The repression of negative emotions such as anger gives rise to elevated levels of stress. The occurrence of stress is as a result of the social disapproval of overt emotional expression that cause repression which is itself intimidating and stressful.(1)
When emotions are dysregulated they might also bring about symptoms of depression over the long run. A research conducted by Larsen et al. (2012) the researchers investigated the possibility of a positive association between repression of emotion and symptoms of depression in adults and adolescents under the influence of peer victimization and parental support.
What effects do suppressed emotions have on our health?
Related literature builds on the venerable idea that people who chronically inhibit the expression of their true emotions may be more prone to a wide range of diseases than those who are emotionally expressive (Alexander, 1939; Freud, 1961).
Also in current times, there have been empirical reports of an association between the inhibition of anger and hostility on the one hand and essential hypertension and coronary heart disease on the other(2).
Studies by Pennebaker and his colleagues (1997) demonstrated that individuals who repress their emotions also suppress their body’s immunity, making them more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses ranging from common colds to malignant cancer. Cancer onset and progression is also highly dependent on how emotionally expressive you are. (Gross, 1989; Temoshok, 1987).
Looking at the entire picture, it is clearly conclusive that emotions, however unacceptable it might be if left unexpressed or dysregulated will lead to consequences which are far more fatal than imagined.
- Buck R. (2003) Emotional expression, suppression, and control: Nonverbal communication in cultural context. , Journal of Intercultural Communication Research32, 175-187.
- Appel, Holroyd, & Gorkin, 1983; Diamond, 1982; Harburg et aI., 1973; Holroyd & Gorkin, 1983; MacDougall, Dembroski, Dimsdale, & Hackett, 1985; also see Engebretson, Matthews, & Scheier, 1989.