What Is Bottling Up Emotions
Smothering or bottling up emotions is suppressing one’s feelings rather than expressing them openly and honestly. Also known as expressive suppression (ES), it is a common technique used to regulate difficult emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness or hide them from others.
It is common for children and adults to conceal outward displays of emotion during social interactions1.
For example, instead of throwing a tantrum, a child may silently share his toys after their parents insist. A teacher may suppress her anger after being criticized by the principal.
Emotion suppression behavior in adults is most likely learned behavior from their childhood. Several factors influence whether a child uses expressive suppression as a coping mechanism in challenging situations.
The social norm in different cultures contributes to children’s understanding of the appropriate expression of emotion. Cultures shape children’s valuation systems and affect how social situations are evaluated.
Cultures that value individualism may view hiding human emotions as stifling individuality, whereas cultures that value interdependence may view it as necessary for maintaining harmony.
For example, American children express emotions to communicate, while Indian children express fewer negative emotions to maintain social norms2.
A culture’s expectation of gender may also play a role. Girls, for instance, are more likely to be taught to consider how their strong emotions affect others, which may lead to increased repression3.
As a person grows up, these cultural norms become their beliefs without questioning their validity.
Children’s value development and coping strategies are affected by parenting in a number of ways.
When parents respond negatively or fail to respond supportively to children’s challenging emotions, they learn to avoid expressing “bad emotions.”5
Out of their fear of abandonment, they suppress their emotional reactions4.
If parents bottle up their own emotions, children may internalize their parents’ emotion regulation strategies and adopt them as their own.
A child’s maltreatment, such as abuse or neglect, also tends to prevent them from expressing emotions, as hiding their feelings seems safer.
Peers can influence children’s perception of whether or not emotions are acceptable.
Children tend to expect more negative consequences from peers than parents if they express negative emotions. A fear of vulnerability may lead them to suppress their emotions to appear cool or to avoid being teased6.
As adults, they suppress their feelings for fear of being judged.
Mental Health Conditions
Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety tend to cause heightened negative feelings, dysregulated emotions, and rumination, leading to inflexible responses and emotional repression7.
Children with temperamental or personality traits characterized by greater reactivity or negative emotionality also use more avoiding strategies8.
For small everyday life hassles that are part of life, bottling up emotions may not matter.
But using this strategy habitually without more adaptive coping could lead to serious consequences if the person experiences overwhelming issues in difficult situations.
This response-focused strategy involves actively inhibiting emotional responses after forming an emotion. This unhealthy coping mechanism is maladaptive and may lead to more negative effects.
Lack of Emotional Regulation
Emotional processing is how a person deals with difficult feelings during life events. Successfully processing emotional disturbances allows someone to absorb and deal with them, allowing them to carry on with their daily lives without interruption9.
Children’s lack of adaptive regulating skills can lead to unresolved emotions that negatively affect their development and well-being.
These children tend to have more behavioral problems and difficulty coping with emotional stress. They may struggle with empathy, understanding social cues, or responding appropriately to others’ emotions.
A lack of emotional regulation skills may lead to anger issues in adults.
Poor Mental Health
The danger of bottling up emotions is that it can be correlated to a lifetime of mental health problems.
Bottled-up emotions have been linked to internalizing problems in adolescents. They are at risk of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, self-injury, and eating disorders10.
Bottling up also prevents the emotional processing of traumatic events, resulting in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and symptoms such as intrusive flashbacks, dissociation, emotional numbing, and phobic anxiety11.
Inhibiting emotion is an active process that requires physiological work. It takes a lot of mental energy to avoid emotions since one must constantly monitor and control their emotional responses.
When individuals inhibit their need to express their emotions, stress is placed on the body resulting in increased vulnerability to physical stress-related diseases.
Consequently, smothering emotions is linked to weaker physical health and stress-related illnesses such as heart disease and blood pressure12.
Suppressing emotions in children is also linked to bullying, relational aggression, and maladaptive coping13.
Adults who suppress their emotions are more hesitant to share their positive and negative emotions with others. They tend to avoid close relationships14 , and forming healthy relationships is more difficult.
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