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The connection between mind and body has been fascinating for everyone for a long. Tracing back to ancient Greek times,  Aristotle observed how emotions affect the body, whereas Hippocrates believed that mental illness was rooted in natural causes instead of supernatural ones, as was widely believed at that time.

In more recent decades, experts have made several correlations between personality traits, psychological conflicts, and somatic illness. Many findings in the scientific literature now confirm the links between emotional suppression and physical health. Even holistic medicine confirms this relationship, placing emotional health on par with physical health. Biochemistry further strengthens this connection by providing explanations of how emotions share biochemical links with the immune, endocrine, digestive, and nervous systems. Because of all these studies and research going on for hundreds of years, experts know the importance of effective emotional regulation and how it helps individuals operate and cope daily in modern life. So why is it that many turn wayward and adopt the destructive habit of emotional suppression, and what happens when you suppress your emotions?

Emotional Suppression

Emotions, also known as psychological states, are the natural responses to the environment and world that surrounds a person. There are different types of emotions, such as sadness, happiness, anger, contempt, surprise, disgust, and fear, and it is common constantly switch from one of these emotions to another as they go through the day. So far, scientific research has named 27 various varieties of reported emotional experiences. However, most people do not usually fully express every emotion they feel. Instead, they often change, down-regulate, or even fully suppress most of them.

Emotional suppression takes place when several uncomfortable feelings and thoughts are pushed out of the mind. Individuals tend to practice this type of suppression in many ways, such as using a distraction (like watching TV), overeating, self-numbing through alcohol or drug use, etc. A few channel their intense emotions into physical activity, such as running, boxing, or simply going to the gym. Focusing the mind on something else helps people forget what is going on inside it. However, many of these people fail to realize that emotional suppression is only a temporary mechanism of enjoying relief and is likely to come back with much worse side effects. While this strategy may make a person believe that they have thrown away certain emotions, the fact is those feelings will continue to exist.

Emotional suppression can have different manifestations in different people. However, some of its most common signs and symptoms likely to be noticed in most of them are described below:

Losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once fun

Many people who suppress their emotions of anger, fear, or sadness are unfortunately going through an undiagnosed depressive episode. Such people feel pressure to hide their true feelings like an appliance whose cord has been cut off. They lose all connections to the outlet and do not have enough energy to enjoy the activities that once used to make them happy.

Sleep-related issues

Sleep disturbances, such as frequent tossing and turning, insomnia, and restless dreams can easily be a sign of emotional suppression. This is when the brain is trying to know the details of the psychological problem that an individual is dealing it but the individual tries to force it to do so without providing any help.

Sleep is the best time for the brain to process and store memories. But in a person who is not coping with their emotions, the brain’s focus diverts to handling the emotions first, consequently making it hard for the victim to sleep.

Conflicts in relationships

People who suppress their emotions are hard to read and interpret. The partners of such people often find it difficult to understand how they are truly feeling at any given point. This failure to comprehend their significant other’s emotional state can keep them on the edge, sometimes forcing them to respond with anger.

Lack of commitment at the workplace

When someone starts suppressing emotions at the workplace, this habit may make them feel less committed to their work. Eventually, their stress levels may build up, their heart rates may go up, and they may start facing anxiety. These changes can lead to poor psychological well-being than other workers who regularly vent frustrations instead of bottling up their emotions.

Stronger emotional recoil

Bottling up emotions can eventually make a person experience even stronger emotions than they typically do. For example, if a person is already suppressing their sadness over something traumatic and another unfortunate event happens, their response is likely to be much stronger than what it would have been without the hidden emotional burden.

Emotional suppression can have one or more reasons. Some people practice this strategy to avoid a powerful or explosive feeling that may otherwise seem socially unacceptable. Others may adopt it to replace an unacceptable feeling with a more comfortable one. There is no denying that humans are almost always influenced by expectations coming from other people in their lives. Mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, are consistently on the rise and typically develop due to experiencing narcissistic abuse. Trauma victims are frequently blamed for how they have failed to move from their past experiences. All these factors, individually and separately, promote the suppression of emotions at one point or another.

Emotional suppression or inhibition is a necessity for many people as it helps them cope with various situations at times. For example, people are expected not to spend an entire day crying because of depression at work. Modern society frowns upon it and expects everyone to suppress emotions and put a lid on their feelings so that they can perform well. The same principle holds everywhere, be it work or personal life. Similarly, in public spaces, everyone is expected to act respectfully instead of shouting with anger, no matter how much one is feeling it.

In short, humans tend to suppress their emotions to conform and cope as they have always been told to survive this way. On top of that, taboos like labeling trauma processing and expression as shame further exacerbates the problem. Other problems, such as social anxiety, may also contribute to this behavior to mask the uncomfortable symptoms. [1]

Research confirms how emotional suppression can exert a negative physiological impact on the body. In most cases, this impact is short-lived and does not lead to any lasting problems. However, in the long run, the continual suppression of emotions can trigger a host of detrimental psychological and physical effects.

Just like inbound stress persists in the body and manifests itself in different ways, such as the tightening of muscles, suppressed emotions also have similar impacts. The typical effects of suppressed emotions include depression, anxiety, and other stress-associated illnesses. Such suppression can also lead to substance and alcohol abuse.

Many people often suppress what they perceive as negative emotions as a way to avoid distress. However, as time goes by, this continual suppression increases the load on the body and requires increasing effort until eventually, it takes its toll. This effort enhances the sympathetic nervous system activity, which can have unhealthy consequences.

Multiple studies have revealed that bottling up emotions can increase aggression levels in people. Experts also believe that effortful suppression of negative emotions can trigger stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity, not only immediately but also in the long run. Some other effects of suppressing feelings include: [2]

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Early death 

It is common for a lot of people to use emotional suppression as a mechanism to steer clear of negativities in life. However, such people must understand that while this may provide them with temporary relief, this habit can bring destructive consequences in the future. Consider some of the techniques mentioned below to unlearn this behavior and eventually understand how to regulate your emotions healthily.

Keep in touch with yourself.

Make it a habit to keep checking in with yourself quite often. Ask yourself how you are doing and try to go through whatever you are going through every few days. If self-talking is not something you are comfortable with, consider writing a journal as an alternative strategy. Get a good journal and make it a habit to write down about your day and the feelings and emotions you went through and processed every night. Some people also like drawing pictures to express their feelings while for others music works well. For example, find a song that goes well with how you feel at the end of the day and gets in touch with your mood to release any trapped emotions.

Use more “I” phrases to feel better.

To accept and release emotions on a timely basis, it is imperative to understand yourself. For this purpose, try using the “I” phrases more commonly throughout the day. Some of these phrases include the following:

  • I am confused about this situation
  • I feel good about that plan
  • I feel very nervous right now and should relax

The goal of this strategy is to slowly become more comfortable with being in touch with your emotions all the time. Some people may find it awkward initially; however, learning healthy emotion regulation becomes possible with a few attempts.

Don’t judge yourself harshly.

Irrespective of the type of emotion you are feeling at any given moment, steer clear of being judgmental about it. Try to experience your feelings and allow them to take you wherever it does. It can also be helpful to name a reason for the emotion you are feeling. For example, you may say “I am feeling very anxious right now because I have to deliver an important presentation tomorrow.”

With time, this strategy will help you become more comfortable with emotional expression. Moreover, it will also gently phase you into sharing your emotions with others who you love and trust.

Seek professional assistance

If you feel self-help tips are not helping you deal with your emotional suppression very much, do not be afraid to seek professional assistance. Talking with a mental health professional is a reasonable first step towards educating yourself about emotional suppression causes and consequences and learning how to overcome this negative habit. These mental health professionals can also offer support and guidance as you begin to explore things on a much deeper level.

With the help of therapy, it will gradually become possible to better understand your feelings, increase your comfort zone, and get hold of different strategies that allow healthy emotional regulation. Eventually, you will begin to understand how to keep your emotions in perspective as you navigate how others around you are feeling.

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