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Is It Unhealthy to Suppress Emotions?

Suppressing your emotions might seem like a useful coping mechanism in the moment, but research shows that bottling up feelings can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health.

What Does Suppressing Emotions Mean?

Emotional suppression, also called expressive suppression, refers to making a conscious effort to inhibit the outward signs of your inner emotional experience. Rather than expressing feelings like anger, sadness, or fear, you bottle them up inside. You may think you are keeping your emotions hidden, but suppression takes effort and often manifests physically through behaviors like clenched fists, a strained smile, or stiff body language.

Why Do People Suppress Emotions?

There are many reasons people suppress emotions, both consciously and unconsciously. You may have learned as a child that expressing certain feelings was unacceptable. Or you may think exposing emotions is a sign of weakness. Suppressing reactions in the moment can help you stay composed in situations where you don’t want to overreact or make others uncomfortable. It may also be a habitual response you’re not even fully aware of.

The Short-Term Impact

In the short-term, tamping down on emotional responses can be beneficial. Staying calm when provoked, for example, allows you to respond thoughtfully rather than impulsively. Controlling anger protects relationships that might otherwise suffer. Putting on a happy face spares others your negative mood. Emotional restraint helps maintain social order and greases the wheels of daily interactions. So in certain contexts, the ability to regulate emotions serves an important purpose.

The Downsides of Chronic Suppression

However, making a long-term habit of suppressing emotions can be detrimental in many ways:

  • Increased stress and anxiety: Bottling up negative feelings allows them to fester and build up pressure inside. Suppressing emotions takes effort and energy that adds to your body’s stress response.
  • Diminished wellbeing: People who regularly suppress their emotions report lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Tamping down emotions limits your ability to fully experience positive feelings like joy and contentment.
  • Strained relationships: Suppression makes you appear cold, distant, and inapproachable to others. It also prevents intimacy in relationships when you hide parts of yourself.
  • Poor communication: Keeping emotions bottled up blocks you from articulating your feelings and needs to others clearly and constructively. Important issues go unresolved.
  • Physical health problems: Chronic suppression activates the fight-or-flight response, leading to inflammation, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system over time. It’s linked to higher risks of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Increase in long-term negative emotions: While temporary suppression provides short-term relief, in the long run bottled up emotions tend to leak out eventually as increased irritability, moodiness, or passive-aggressive behaviors. Burying issues can lead to resentment, depression, and anger management issues.

Healthy Coping Strategies

Rather than letting emotions accumulate silently under the surface, psychologists recommend healthy strategies like these to balance emotional control with emotional expression:

  • Let some emotions flow in the moment, while maintaining composure. Allow yourself to feel without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Reflect on your feelings alone, through journaling, art, or meditation. Process them without needing to share them out loud.
  • confide in trusted friends and family who can listen empathetically and help you gain perspective.
  • physical activity, laughter, and relaxation exercises like deep breathing also provide positive outlets.

With a balanced approach, you can gain skills to thoughtfully regulate emotions when appropriate without sacrificing self-expression and honesty in your relationships. Paying attention to feelings and giving them space to move through you, rather than bottling them up, can help protect your mental and physical wellbeing.