The dangers of emotional suppression

Emotions, if not expressed from time to time, lead to suppression. This can affect our health, directly and indirectly

Tolerate, don't suppressAs human beings, we have a natural need to express our emotions and feelings, whether positive or negative. Interest, enthusiasm, boredom, laughter, empathy, action, and curiosity, are expressions of positive emotions. Expressed in their negative forms, they become apathy, grief, fear, hatred, shame, blame, regret, resentment, anger, and hostility.

Human minds are like an assembly-line of emotions, where there is a continuous production of various emotions. These emotions, if not expressed from time to time, lead to suppression. This has a direct and indirect impact on our health.

Why do we suppress?

We learn to suppress our emotions due to a variety of reasons. Some suppressions are governed by social mores [e.g., passion, excitement], while others could be because of our own self-imposed limitations. For example, we may suppress our anger towards our boss because of fear of losing our jobs. Or, we may suppress our feelings of love for someone because of fear of rejection.

Whatever the reason, when we suppress an emotion, the energy of that emotion does not go away. Instead, it remains as pent-up energy inside the deeper recesses of our mind. But, by not resolving the emotional energy, we choose to hold it inside, albeit unconsciously.

Suppression causes illness

Emotional suppression causes physical harm, dysfunction and illness. Think of emotion as Energy-in-Motion [EIM]. Inhibiting the free flow of emotional energies causes serious damage to our physical, mental, and spiritual aspects.

We know the consequence of a balloon that’s inflated continuously without any release of filler gas at frequent intervals. The balloon has a limited capacity to swell. Once it reaches fullness, any more inflation leads to its rupture. We too have a balloon in our minds that can hold only a limited amount of emotions. Stifling of emotions leads to a gradual build-up towards the holding capacity. This can result in an outburst that can be physically and mentally harmful.

Unexpressed, stuffed emotions, besides causing psychological problems, also contribute to the emergence of several physical health problems. Medical science has established that our thoughts and emotions “talk” to our cells. Ever since the 1970s, scientists have been building a case for this. The outcome is a fascinating area of study called psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI. PNI says the mind and emotions [psyche] communicate with the nervous [neuro] and immune [immunology] systems, both to their detriment, or advantage, depending on whether it is consciously or unconsciously directed, and depending on the content of that communication.

It is, therefore, imperative that we understand just how badly emotional suppression injures us. Suppression is not limited to just the negative or “bad” emotions. Regardless of the nature of emotions, when they get stuck, they become physiological problems for the body. In fact, all emotions are healthy because they are what that tie the mind and body together, explains Candace Pert, PhD, in Molecules of Emotion. What’s important is to avoid a build-up, to let go of them, so they don’t fester, build, or escalate uncontrollably.

Release your emotions

Psychotherapists place a lot of importance on emotional catharsis, which implies purging, or throwing out, unwanted and immobilising emotions. For example, crying is a very potent cathartic act. It allows you to release the pent-up feeling of extreme sadness. Other ways of catharsis could be writing your feelings down, talking with your friends, or indulging in a creative exploit such as painting, singing, or playing a musical instrument.

Frequently, an emotional release may be achieved by direct action on the mischievous emotion. If, for instance, you’re feeling extremely passionate, it’s best to act on your passion by making love to your beloved than to suppress it because of any number of reasons.

How you release your emotions is not important. It’s important that you release them.

Developing tolerance

Not suppressing your emotions does not mean allowing an outburst each time there’s a build-up of emotional energy. That can be harmful too. We must avoid both emotional indulgence and suppression.

In most cases, developing an attitude of tolerance can help immensely in avoiding a build-up. Tolerance means developing an understanding such that the emotional build-up doesn’t take place. Suspending judgment about people and events can be a good start. Expecting yourself or others to always behave correctly, or rationally, is one reason for emotional turmoil. Be gentle with your judgments and allow mistakes. If you experience negative emotions such as guilt, simply resolve not to repeat the behaviour that caused the guilt. Then tell yourself that you’re allowed to make mistakes. Also, realise that holding on to the guilty feelings will not change the past, but can ruin a perfectly good present.

Tolerance is a virtue that helps you accept that not everything will always go your way. Events in life are often beyond our control. Tolerance means changing the way we process those events. Develop it. It might just be the key to your emotional fulfilment.

Two Cases in Point

Grace, thirty-six, had an embarrassing problem: she chronically pulled her hair out the way other people bite their fingernails. Her scalp was a mess of patchy, straggly hair and great gaps where she had ripped the hair out. Grace went to Dr Joseph Riccioli, MD, ND, a physician and naturopath practicing in Clifton, New Jersey, US, who uses clinical hypnosis to help patients get over depression, cancer, and other serious health problems. In the course of working with Grace, Dr Riccioli learned that she was using the hair-pulling as a way to discharge stress and tension associated with two traumatic events earlier in her life, in the thrall of which emotions she was still gripped. As a child, she had been publicly humiliated in school, and in early adulthood, her husband became an active alcoholic and deserted their marriage. Grace thought these two events happened because of her and, therefore, she deserved to be punished for them, even though she couldn’t figure out why. Her pent-up, conflicted anger was expressed through her hair-pulling; because, she couldn’t find rest or resolution with respect to these two intense experiences, she was transiting back and forth continuously from her present age and those earlier times. Once she understood the connection and remembered the earlier experiences clearly and in full, she was able to discharge the old emotions and stop pulling her hair, says Dr Riccioli.

Another of Dr Riccioli’s patients, Vera, forty-two, was a woman with angry ovaries. She had a serious case of ovarian cancer and was about to undergo surgery. Dr Riccioli learned Vera had endured a highly abusive marital relationship, such that she at times had to lock herself in a room to protect herself from her husband. She knew she had a lot of anger towards him, but had stuffed it away inside herself and never dealt with it. “Vera never dealt with her anger and it eventually turned into guilt,” and she assumed she must have done something wrong to provoke her husband, notes Dr Riccioli.

– Excerpted from The Healthy Living Space: 70 Practical Ways to Detoxify the Body and Home. Richard Leviton. Courtesy: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Charlottesville, VA 22902, US.

Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri is a highly experienced wellbeing consultant. He is also a writer-editor and has written on topics ranging from strategic marketing and business management to art, culture and even philosophy. His more than 1250 published stories—articles, interviews, full-length features—have appeared in some of the leading newspapers and magazines of India. A certified cognitive behavioural therapist, he works as a personal counsellor too. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed self-improvement book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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