Risks of Emotional Suppression & Dealing with Negative Emotions

Dangers of Emotional Suppression

It is unfortunate that in most cultures, strength is defined as our ability to avoid overtly emotional responses and the conditioning begins in our childhood and defines our emotional health for as long as we live.

Why it’s necessary to make space for emotions

In the event of a heartbreak, failure, or loss, we are always desperate to find a way to avoid the pain that follows with avoidance and distraction as the tools of choice, but what a lot of us don’t seem to realise is that we don’t get to pick and choose emotions and experiences. Pain, anger, envy and every other negative emotion deserves as much space as joy and triumph. If we avoid and suppress them, all we achieve is a brief period of reprieve but a day of reckoning is guaranteed and it may arrive at a time that may be most inopportune. The more you suppress your emotions, the more explosive the eventual breakdown is likely to be; all those emotions that you’ve been pushing into dark corners may ambush you with no room left for escape.

Related: Exercises To Help Resolve Emotional Issues

Make it a habit to do regular ‘emotional’ check-ins. Assess your emotional state and make mental notes. It will help normalise emotional expression. You can also use a journal. You may even find a song or a piece of art that reflects your mood Pin

Certain consequences to emotional suppression -

1. Physical Fatigue and Illness

A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that emotional suppression may put you at a higher risk of premature death, cancer, and cardiovascular issues.

Constant stress caused by suppressed emotions may also lead to tension headaches, migraines, unhealthy gut, insomnia, and even weight gain caused by comfort eating. Emotional stress may also lead to physical discomfort caused by muscle tension and pain. It alters our mood and makes us more pessimistic which has an impact on our immune system as found in this study. The findings of the study tell us that our body’s immune and emotional systems mirror each other. Those of us prone to emotional disorders are also more susceptible to  immune system diseases.

2. Anxiety and Depression

When emotions are not given a healthy outlet, they don’t go away as we expect them to; instead, they fester and overtime, become a part of your internal system leading to anxiety and/or depression, and other mental illnesses. In the absence of a healthy coping mechanism, we resort to dangerous methods like substance abuse, self-harm, sexual promiscuity, and overeating.

Related: 11 Warning Signs Of A Mental Illness

3. Inability to Forge Healthy Relationships

Deliberately desensitising yourself to certain emotions has a profound impact on your interpersonal interactions and your intimate relationships. It creates an invisible barrier behind which you hide a large chunk of your emotional life which in turn, allows you to only share small pieces   of yourself with others. Continuous denial of certain emotions may even lead to unexplainable outburst on others, fear of commitment and intimacy, and unhealthy sexual behaviour.

Related: How To Communicate Issues In Relationships?

We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.

How do you know if you have an unhealthy relationship with your emotions?

If you do any of the following, it can be because you are uncomfortable dealing with negative emotions and have an avoidant relationship with them.

You believe that-

  1. Negative emotions make us weak or bad
  2. Emotional displays are signs of an unstable personality
  3. Emotional expression can make you vulnerable to external manipulation
  4. It’s imperative to move on after setbacks without sparing too much mental space to the event itself

Behavioural Patterns-

  1. Whenever you find yourself confronted with  unpleasant emotions, you indulge in numbing behaviour like bingeing, drinking, overworking, overeating etc – anything that allows you to distract your attention.
  2. You often react in unpredictable, unexplainable ways like sudden explosions of temper, abrupt withdrawal, or sudden loss of interest in relationships and people.
  3. You find it uncomfortable to discuss your emotional or mental state
  4. Emotional displays from others make you uncomfortable
  5. You prioritise your physical wellbeing but spend little to no time on caring for your mental or emotional health.

If you think crying makes you weak, that it’s important to be the first one to move on after a breakup, or it’s better to bury bitterness and resentment instead of communicating it, you have developed the habit of avoiding negative emotions and denying the impact of negative experiences.  The healthy choice is to make space for emotions (regardless of their nature) when they come your way, sit with them, and process them in their entirety before you try to move onto something different. Good and bad, light and dark, only by experiencing the full spectrum of human experience can you add meaning to your life and find in yourself the ability to totally immerse in the more joyous and positive experiences of life.

Related: Better Emotional Awareness And Wellbeing With Dr. Carla Marie Manly

The art of living is based on rhythm - on give & take, ebb & flow, light & dark, life & death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good & bad, right & wrong, yours & mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, 'the dance of life,' metamorphosis.

The pandemic and it’s far-reaching repercussions have made it even more important for us develop the ability to sit with our emotions and process them in a healthy manner. In fact, it’s imperative that we learn the very important role negative emotions and experiences play in our life; the benefits they can offer despite the pain and discomfort that accompanies them.
Changing your perception around certain emotions can make it easier for you to give them space and conscious attention.
  1. It’s the negative emotions that keep us safe. They are instinctive and linked to our survival response. Experiences that engender a predominantly negative response are avoided like dating a certain type of person, magnitude of financial investments, choosing better neighbourhoods etc. Only by giving space to the emotions caused by a negative event and what led up to it, do we learn to avoid similar instances in the future.
  2. Life experiences, especially of a negative variety, are necessary for growth and emotional maturity. Failures can be turned into data points that make us more effective. Sorrow draws attention to the different shades of humanity and the more realistic (even jarring) human experiences. Jealousy alerts us to the more negative forces within us that may potentially impact our choices. Loss makes us more appreciative of the present joy. Fear enhances our focus and helps us avoid mistakes. The only important thing is that we make an effort to ensure that the inevitable change in our character and life expectations caused by the negative emotions benefits us in the long run. We can do that by giving our emotions the space to breathe and to be felt fully and in their entirety.
  3. Another thing I want you to remember as you go through the more difficult experiences of life, what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. For instance, if I have successfully overcome the pain caused by a broken relationship, processed the loss, and spent time in my own company, I will go into the next entanglement with more confidence and a better hold on my individuality. I will set better standards for my relationships and I won’t be afraid to let go of a partnership if it fails to meet my expectations.
  4. If you willingly expose yourself to the pain in your life, you’ll add to your emotional resilience and fear will never again dictate your choices. If you ever find yourself in a crisis, you will have all the necessary tools to navigate the changed life dynamics.
  5. Most importantly, it’s pain and tragedy that adds meaning to our life and how we respond to it is what defines us.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.

Sadness, fear, anger, such emotions are inevitable. Even if you are lucky to escape any major loss, you still have to endure the usual vicissitudes of life. As we are doing with the pandemic; to some extent, we are all facing the anxiety and grief that the COVID has brought to our world. In such scenarios, if we know how to handle difficult emotions, we have a better chance of not just surviving but thriving in challenging circumstances.

Apart from changing our perspective around negative emotions and experiences (as discussed above), there are a few other things we can do to make space for our emotions-
1. Observe, Label, and Understand

Sitting with your emotions as a concept may not make sense to a lot of us, but it simply means that we slow down and take a moment(s) to notice and feel our emotions in their entirety.
Yes, I am sad that I failed but perhaps, I am also angry and disappointed. Maybe, I feel guilty too because I didn’t work hard enough. Also notice the sensations in your body. It’s another aspect of your emotional experience. Notice where, in your body, you feel the stress of the emotion. This will help you pick a corresponding soothing exercise.

Identify and label the emotion. Understand the cause, this helps reduce the intensity of the emotion by attaching more clinical nuances to it.

2. Let them out and let them breathe

When you feel the jolt of a strong emotion, label it and speak it out loud in an ‘I’ statement.

I am jealous. I am bitterly angry.

Don’t let judgement hold you back from freely expressing yourself. Feel the emotion and acknowledge all of its aspects. Give yourself permission to wallow in it till it loses some of its impact. Listening to a sad song, yelling into a pillow, soaking yourself in a bath, crying yourself to sleep are all acceptable methods.

3. Validate your emotions

If in childhood, your primary caregiver constantly told you to stop crying, or told you to ‘buck-up and move on’, you’ll find it hard to allow your emotions free rein, at all. If you always feel the need to rush through the more uncomfortable emotions, perhaps you need to remind yourself that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and that it’s part of the human experience. Changing your perspective around emotions (as discussed above) will help.

4. Maintain a curiosity mindset. Find Meaning

As you explore your emotional state, do it with a curiosity mindset as you would if you were observing the events play out in a movie. There is a story behind every emotion we feel, make sure to understand what led to your current emotional state, what is lending it such intensity, and why it is affecting you so much. As you do this, it will help you to figure out your next steps out of that situation and it will contribute to your growth.

We crave closure after a breakup because we need to understand why we have been rejected or why the relationship is no longer viable. The answers don’t make the pain go away but they make them more bearable and mark the beginning of our recovery.

When we fail in an exam, we continue to feel disappointment, anger, and fear but understanding the reason for the failure and figuring out a way to avoid its repetition can help us move past it and make another, better attempt at our goal.

Steps to cultivate a better response system-
1. Do constant check-ins
Make it a habit to do regular ‘emotional’ check-ins. Assess your emotional state and make mental notes. It will help normalise emotional expression. You can also use a journal. You may even find a song or a piece of art that reflects your mood.
2. Figure out your patterns. Pick a response.

By sitting with your emotions and observing them, you also give yourself the opportunity to make careful note of your reactions, thoughts, and every element that leads to the situation and that follows. It allows you to spot patterns and what may be serving you and what needs to be changed for you to get closer to your ideal self. Based on the information, you can pick a response that helps deal with situation with more grace. 

Think about the kind of person you want to be and how s/he would handle different situations. Try to gain clarity on appropriate responses in different situations and practice them when you have the opportunity. 

For instance, I am always proud of myself when I stay calm in confrontations so when things get heated and I feel my control slipping away, I take a walk. I process things in my journal and when I gained more conviction, I resume the conversation with a clear idea of how I want things to progress.

Respond, don’t react; work from a place of awareness and self-knowledge.

3. Periodically, recuperate and recover

Avoid emotional burnout or breakdowns by taking a restful break after suffering emotional trauma. Practice mindfulness regularly and have other practices that give you a safe emotional outlet. 

Related: The Best Guided Meditations Available On YouTube

Don’t let things get on top of you by taking on more than you can handle or by maintaining a destructive or unsustainable pace.

If you want to know more about this process, send me your questions using the contact page and if you need a safe space to process emotional trauma, approach a therapist.

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