What Happens When You Suppress Emotions for Too Long?

We’ve all felt the urge to hold in our feelings at some point, whether out of fear of judgment, desire to avoid conflict, or belief that emotions should be kept private. However, continually suppressing how we really feel can have serious consequences for our mental and physical health.

Suppressed emotions don’t just go away. Even though we may think we’ve “moved on” from an upsetting event or interaction, unexpressed emotions continue to influence our moods and behaviors in subtle ways. Scientists believe that suppressed emotions are stored in the body on a cellular level. Over time, they build up and manifest as muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues and more.

Long-term suppression of emotions like anger, hurt and sadness also takes a toll on our relationships. When we try to act like everything’s fine even when we’re upset, the people close to us can start to feel shut out. Trust and intimacy suffer when we hide parts of ourselves. Passive aggression and cynicism may enter the void left by authentic expression.

Furthermore, bottling up emotions traps us in the past. When we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel and release feelings about past hurts, it becomes difficult to move forward. We carry the emotional baggage with us, distorting our view of the present. Suppressed feelings about traumatic events can also contribute to the development of PTSD.

Suppressing joyful feelings dampens our ability to experience life fully. Even positive emotions need motion. When we feel the spark of enthusiasm, inspiration or love but tell ourselves “don’t get too excited,” we deny ourselves opportunities for creativity and intimacy.

Here are some signs that you may be suppressing your emotions:

  • You feel like you’re just going through the motions each day.
  • It’s been a long time since you had a good cry.
  • You’re often irritable and quick to anger.
  • It’s hard for you to experience joy and relaxation.
  • You struggle with chronic anxiety, depression or cynicism.
  • You have frequent headaches, stomach issues and muscle tension.

If this sounds familiar, it’s important to understand why you suppress emotions. Were you taught as a child to always appear calm and collected? Do you fear judgment for having needs and vulnerabilities? Have you been discouraged from expressing certain feelings like anger or sadness?

Examining the roots of your emotional avoidance helps pave the way for change. You can then begin gently nudging yourself out of your comfort zone through journaling, art, talking to a trusted friend or counseling. Moving through long-suppressed feelings takes patience, but it allows you to step out of the past and live with greater authenticity.

Of course, it’s important to express feelings in healthy ways — not through hostility or unwarranted criticism. And occasional, short-term emotional suppression can be harmless. But listening to your deeper self on a regular basis provides relief from accumulated energetic tension. Processing feelings thoroughly when they arise prevents them from weighing you down or eventually exploding.

Whatever those buried emotions may be—grief, fear, anger, joy—you deserve the chance to fully inhabit them. Befriending your feelings helps you befriend yourself. And only once emotions are embraced can they transform into wisdom.