We all experience a whirlwind of emotions every day, some pleasant and others not so much.
While these emotions play a crucial role in our lives, society often encourages us to suppress or hide the ones that are perceived as negative. This practice, known as emotion suppression, might seem harmless or even beneficial at first glance. After all, who wants to be seen as “too emotional”?
But is it really that simple?
It turns out that suppressing expressive emotions can have acute effects on individuals, impacting not just our mental health but also our relationships and overall well-being.
What is emotion suppression
Emotion suppression, or expressive suppression, involves deliberately limiting one’s expression of emotion when aroused.1 This response-focused emotion regulation strategy applies late in the emotion process. It changes the expressive behavior without lessening the feeling of negative emotions, which continue to linger and accumulate unresolved.2
Often, emotional suppression is driven by the desire to avoid negative judgment from others by not showing emotional expression and not appearing to lose control.3 It is considered a maladaptive type of emotion regulation linked to poor physical and psychological health.4
Emotion suppression examples
Have you ever held back your tears to get through a day of work or binge-watched a show to avoid sad, anxious, or uncomfortable feelings?
If so, then you have engaged in emotional suppression.
People suppress their negative feelings of emotion in different ways. Here are some common examples of suppressing emotions.
- Pushing the challenging emotions away
- Distracting themselves with other thoughts
- Engaging in distracting activities such as binge-watching television
- Holding the painful emotions in without expressing it
Repress vs. suppress
Both emotional repression and emotional suppression involve withdrawing attention from negative emotions. They appear to have similar effects in removing mental content from awareness.
However, repression is generally believed to be unconscious, whereas suppression is conscious. People are usually unaware of repressed emotions.5
Effects of emotion suppression
Emotional suppression can be a one-time act or a chronic way to cope.
There are many situations in life when openly expressing how we feel in the moment may be inappropriate or counterproductive.
For example, getting visibly angry at a coworker during a meeting rarely leads to a good outcome.
So, in the short run, keeping these feelings private and under control enables us to navigate challenging interpersonal situations and maintain functioning relationships.
However, repetitive suppression of negative emotions can become a habitual coping mechanism. The followings are some negative consequences of emotion suppression.6
Unhealthy coping behaviors
Emotional suppression first impacts health at a behavioral level. Unhealthy coping strategies such as overeating are used to manage suppressed feelings.
When people do not allow themselves to express their feelings openly and constructively, they may resort to these detrimental coping mechanisms to manage stress caused by unresolved feelings.7
Suppression in response is associated with lower self-esteem. It could be due to a sense of discrepancy between a person’s internal experience and outward behavior.
This disconnection can make them feel like they’re not being true to themselves and not being accepted by others. Being dishonest about their emotions can also lead to self-judgment and self-criticism, further lowering one’s self-regard.
Suppressing may cause people to ruminate more about their negative emotions. Dwelling negatively on emotions not outwardly expressed may also damage self-esteem.8
Suppression of emotions also has detrimental psychological consequences. It can negatively impact an individual’s mood and outlook on life. They tend to experience less positive emotions and more negative emotions.9
Suppressing intense emotions can increase aggressive behavior through multiple pathways.
Suppression decreases self-esteem and satisfaction while increasing feelings of anger, anxiety, and stress. It also compromises inhibition and judgment. Having built-up emotions also prevents the resolution of underlying issues, prolonging frustration that breeds aggressiveness.
Consequently, while temporarily reducing strong emotions, it provokes aggression by raising risk factors internally, in social interactions, and difficult situations.10
Emotion suppressors tend to have heightened autonomic consequences when faced with stressful situations. Their bodies respond more intensely to stress, with increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and changes in hormone levels.
This heightened stress response can have significant physiological consequences over time. Chronic stress can lead to a range of physical illnesses, including hypertension11, elevated heart rate, and heart disease.12
Individuals who frequently suppress their difficult emotions are found to have an elevated risk of early death.
This can be attributed to several factors. People who often suppress their feelings may turn to unhealthy coping methods like overeating. Pushing down emotions can also trigger chronic stress, raising the risk of heart problems. And research shows that inhibiting emotions is tied to higher rates of cancer-related deaths.13
In addition to health and mortality, suppression also has personal and social consequences. Research shows that suppressing can distract the communication between partners and induce stress in social relationships.14
Healthy forms of emotion regulation
Suppression of emotion is a relatively less effective emotion regulation strategy.
Reappraising, or reframing, is a way to change how we think about a situation that makes us feel emotional so it doesn’t affect us as much. It’s like looking at things from a different angle to change how we feel about them. This can help change how strongly we react emotionally.15
Accepting negative emotions when they come up rather than avoiding them may help us to cope better when facing hard situations. People who practice acceptance in the face of high stress have also been shown to develop fewer symptoms of depression.16
Mindfulness is a way of bringing attention to your present emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations in a non-judgemental and detached manner.17
Growing awareness of what triggers certain feelings, how they feel, and how we respond to them can help us regulate. Practices such as journaling about stressful, traumatic, or emotional experiences can help us be more aware of our emotional responses.18
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