How many times have you heard this advice about dealing with painful emotions? "Stop being so sensitive. Suck it up and move on."
When others tell you to bury your feelings, it makes you question yourself and the messages your body is trying to send to you. Think about how many times today you've attempted to push away a painful feeling by scrolling through social media, bingeing on Netflix, or using food, alcohol, or addictive substances to avoid emotions. In a world filled with distractions and with the invalidating messages we've received throughout our lives about emotions, it's easy to see why so many people are afraid of feeling.We've been taught to ignore, deny, and avoid our emotions—but this is more than just bad advice. Feeling leads to healing (trite but true). When we push away, suppress, or criticize ourselves for having emotions, it comes with a very high cost: our health.
We've learned how to push discomfort away, but even when we do, it always stays—and grows. A study from the University of Texas found that when we avoid our emotions, we're actually making them stronger. This can create many maladies in the body and in the mind, causing a myriad of health issues.
When you suppress your emotions, you are confusing and hurting your body in a profound way. Emotions are our body's way of getting us to take action. On a very primal level, our bodies are trying to keep us safe at all times. Back in the cave man and cave woman days, we learned to listen to our guts because they would save us from attack: run away or get eaten. People today are not necessarily running from wild animals anymore but reacting to an emotion and processing it can still ultimately protect them from dangers, both physical and mental. With the speed of our days, it can be challenging to hear what our bodies are trying to say, but when we ignore those messages, we can still suffer greatly.
Research suggests that suppressing emotionsis associated with high rates of heart disease, as well as autoimmune disorders, ulcers, IBS, and gastrointestinal health complications. Whether you are experiencing anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, pushing those feelings aside actually leads to physical stress on your body. Studies show that holding in feelings has a correlation to high cortisol—the hormone released in response to stress—and that cortisol leads to lower immunity and toxic thinking patterns. Over time, untreated or unrecognized stress can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, problems with memory, aggression, anxiety, and depression.
In other words, deciding to bury your feelings, ignore them, internalize them, pretend they didn't happen, or convince yourself that there is no need to deal with them can literally make you sick from the stress.
And for a cherry on top: People who regularly refuse to deal with their emotions honestly and fully are also likely to have more interpersonal challenges. They are less aware of the signals they are sending to others and are often more reactive and disconnected from themselves, which can lead to feelings of isolation and can interfere with relationships.
We imagine a person who suppresses their emotions might be a totally aloof, perhaps cold, and definitely low-energy person; this is by no means the truth in all scenarios. To the contrary, avoiding a deep understanding of our emotions and what's causing them can lead us to getting stuck in a fight-or-flight response. Something triggers an emotional response, and suddenly we might start to obsess about all the things that are negative and convince ourselves that the most terrible consequences that could happen definitely will happen. It's all FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. This triggers your body's stress response and pushes you into a state of high arousal. That's when the cortisol spikes, a chemical called norepinephrine is triggered that ups your heart rate and blood pressure, and you can get so keyed up on fear that you don't take the time to fully understand the thing that pushed you into this response. You don't take the time to see if you interpreted the stressor correctly.
As a therapist, I get it: Listening to our emotions is scary and can feel super weird. You've spent most of your life avoiding them, so why on earth would you want to feel them all at once? That's actually unhealthy too. It can create too much confusion. Instead, I suggest to clients to educate themselves on the science of emotions (which you already have done if you read the above) and practice a few of the skills below. The goal is to go slowly—this helps you gain confidence about what you're feeling and learn to trust your emotions rather than suppress them.
Take a moment to become aware of how your body is feeling during the day. I try to set an alarm or reminder for the morning and midafternoon just to remind myself to check in and take a few deep breaths. No matter what you are doing, take a few moments. Are you tense? If so, where? Are you breathing in a deep way or in a shallow way? How does it feel to take a few deep breaths?
By doing this, you can begin to identify where feelings are stuck in your body. Then by diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing while your stomach pushes out on the inhale), you can activate your vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for regulating emotions, and when we take deep mindful breaths, we are literally massaging the intensity of our emotions.
Simply acknowledging your emotion reduces the intensity of them, making them profoundly easier to manage. Your amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, gets stuck in an irrational thought process when you attempt to suppress your emotions. When you attempt to avoid what you are feeling, you aren't solving anything, and your brain will get stuck. When you identify what is bothering you—"I'm feeling stressed right now"—your frontal lobe gets to work. That brain region helps with problem solving, finds solutions, and validates your experience, which can help you start to feel better.
We as humans all have emotions. Some of them are positive; other ones, not so much. Practice self-compassion; try not to invalidate yourself with dismissive or unhealthy self-talk about what you are feeling. If you're upset about the way someone talked to you, it's healthy to feel frustration or sadness; it's not an opportunity to turn this into an unwarranted criticism of yourself. This just makes your cortisol levels skyrocket, leading to more stress and more anxiety and more negative thinking.
When we stop and honor our emotions, this helps to reframe our thoughts in a more kind and loving way, such as how you would talk to a child or good friend. Dr. Kristin Neff, the leader in self-compassion research, has found that when we are gentle with ourselves, it can stop the flood of cortisol and help one regulate in a healthy way. Self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, a soothing and calming hormone that makes us feel connected in a good way and can take a dramatic situation down a few notches immediately.
When we learn to tune into our bodies, our thoughts actually slow down and offer us more control. Our brains are quite amazing—studies show that a meditation practice improves reactions to stress and can actually change our reactions to emotions, improving our emotional and physical health.
I find that short, guided meditations (two to five minutes) are a great way to get one's mind off of autopilot and reduce avoidance of emotion. I also find it helpful to do this with a teacher and through apps such as Simple Habit and Calm. You can also learn from an expert (like Light Watkins, for example), which helps you stay engaged and accountable to a daily practice.
Doing this daily (ideally in the morning but whatever works for you) can help you become more self-aware.
Being mindful of and understanding your emotions improves your mental and physical health without a doubt. This is the true meaning of self-care and can help anybody improve their well-being. If you think that blocking or hiding your feelings won't produce ill effects on your mind and body, you are wrong. While it can be frightening and uncomfortable to face your negative feelings, it will help you to find a place of understanding and improve your overall quality of daily life.