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The Ironic Impact of Suppressing Emotions: Feeling Worse

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Working, exercising, eating, socializing are all activities than can help us lead healthy, productive lives – until they don’t. Some people use work, exercise, food or socializing as a way to avoid emotions or uncomfortable situations. But this inability or unwillingness to take a break from activity – or what is commonly perceived as productivity – and instead to rest alone with one’s thoughts and feelings, comes at the expense of our physical and mental well-being.

A series of studies over the past few decades show that suppressing your emotions can and does effect your health and wellbeing. In fact, a 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed people who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30 percent, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70 percent.

As Sigmund Freud quotes: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

Suppressing emotions can lead us to lose our authenticity, and even cause more upsetting feelings. We may not even do it consciously: suppressing emotions can be a learned behavior, for example as a way to avoid conflict or fear.

One of my clients was feeling frustrated in her marriage. Her husband worked long hours and she was feeling neglected. She felt resentful of her husband’s absence, while at the same time grateful that he had a decent job that provided the family with security. Working together, we unpeeled some of the layers behind her mixed emotions, eventually tracing it back to an episode where she had been felt abandoned in childhood.

This root cause was a critical factor in upsetting her current emotional equilibrium.

If you ever find yourself overdoing an activity as a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions, consider asking yourself what triggers this behavior, such as ‘I am feeling empty’ or ‘I feel angry.’ Recognizing your emotion and consciously making your choices leads you towards a healthier and more balanced feeling.

Try not to be afraid of emotions because they are like energy waves, varying in shape and intensity, just like ocean waves. Their nature is to arise and pass away pretty soon, like all natural phenomena. If you attempt to interrupt this process by acting out or suppressing it, you will keep thinking about and holding onto those emotions you’re trying to avoid.

Then, ask yourself, what is it that I am feeling at this moment? Where this comes from? What is one change that I could make in such moments to become receptive to more self-compassion?

"The acronym RAIN by Tara Brach is an easy-to remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion

using the following four steps:

1. Recognize what is happening;

2. Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

3. Investigate with interest and care;

4. Nurture with self-compassion.

You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps whenever challenging feelings arise."

Sona Madian

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