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Consequences of Emotion Suppression

Updated: Jan 14

- Teresa Jacobson DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

March 1, 2023



Suppressing emotions often begins as a survival mechanism, developing in an environment where expressing emotions was not safe or were too painful to do. While maintaining composure is a common tactic, acknowledging and attending to our feelings is paramount.


Emotions communicate important messages to ourselves and others, so it is not surprising that suppressing emotions can have a detrimental impact to our physiological and psychological well-being.



Wired for Survival


We may try to appear less emotional than we really are and inhibit or suppress what we are feeling, however, emotions do not disappear when we suppress. Emotions unattended do still exist inside us and can leak or "burst" out in other ways.

Emotion suppression is a strategy for emotion regulation that is used frequently, consciously, or not. "Emotion suppression is a form of emotion regulation that involves consciously inhibiting ongoing expression of emotion-related behavior" (Vingerhoets, Nyklicek, & Denollet, 2008). It is a tactic that many use; sometimes people aren't even aware they are suppressing.

"We refer to inhibiting overt emotion-expressive behavior as emotion suppression" (Richards & Gross, 1999). "Although emotion suppression decreases outward signs of emotion, it has little effect on emotion experience, and it actually increases sympathetic activation, as evidenced by greater peripheral vasoconstriction and greater electrodermal responding." This results in physiological and psychological changes. We are deeply impacted though we think we are helping ourselves.


The Internal Struggle Can Wreak Havoc


While emotion suppression allows us to seem calm on the outside; on the inside, we experience just as much emotion and a substantial "physiological activation than we do when we freely express our emotions" (Richards & Gross, 1999). Suppression disrupts our inner peace and dialogue, and also has an impact on others.


Because suppression decreases the expression of emotion, "in social contexts, suppressors may fail to respond appropriately to others and may avoid interpersonal interaction" (Vingerhoets, Nyklicek, & Denollet 2008). In these instances, the suppressor is not only invalidating him or herself, but socially invalidating others' experiences. This lack of expression can be perceived as uncaring to others, which may not be an accurate depiction.

Though it isn't easy, acknowledging and experiencing difficult emotions--the opposite of suppressing--involves awareness, tremendous strength, and courage. It also leads to authenticity which is a core component of personal and relational well-being.


"One reason why suppression detracts from well-being is because the act of inhibiting one’s true emotions decreases people’s sense of authenticity" (Le & Impett, 2016). When we align our actions, thoughts, and words with our core values, we are living authentically, and are genuinely able to respect ourselves. Authenticity is one of the benefits of not suppressing.


"Suppression has been linked with personal costs, including lower emotional well-being and self-esteem" (Le & Impett, 2016). Suppressing can also "detract from interpersonal closeness, relationship satisfaction, and social support." Suppression also leads to less responsiveness to other. While it takes effort to suppress, it can compromise one's ability to meet their personal needs and the needs of others.


The impact of emotional suppression is revealed in Le and colleagues' (2016) research: "Individuals who engaged in greater emotional suppression during couples’ discussions were perceived by their partners to suffer greater depressed mood, feel less supported/close and be less competent with regard to their goal". While suppression of emotions begins as a coping skill to regulate emotions, it is not a healthy one to have.


Consider Cognitive Reappraisal


Cognitive reappraisal, on the other hand, takes attention and intention, but can lead to healthier outcomes. "In particular, cognitive reappraisal is defined as the attempt to reinterpret an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that alters its meaning and changes its emotional impact" (Cutuli, 2014). "The usage of cognitive reappraisal allows to implement and produce interpersonal behavior that is appropriately focused on social interaction and is perceived by the others as emotionally engaging and responsive." Emotions are meant to communicate, they inform us as humans, and inform others.


If emotional suppression is shutting things down; cognitive reappraisal is opening things up, paying attention, checking further into the situation, examining it, understanding it, and making the most of it. Cognitive reappraisal can lead to psychological flexibility and emotional well-being.


Research has shown that cognitive reappraisal also leads to greater physical health, higher academic achievement, more positive social outcomes, greater psychological well-being and fewer mental health symptoms (McRae & Gross, 2020).

Distraction or Avoidance?


Some may turn to distraction as a technique to provide some immediate relief to difficult emotions. However distraction ignores the ability to work through what stimulated the intense emotion, as well as understanding the emotions and how to work through them. While distraction can ease the emotional discomfort of the moment, it doesn't help a person cope or grow.

Distraction also can lead to avoidance, which offers no solution to conquering the stimulus of emotional distress. Momentary distraction can ease pain, but individuals who distract will need to attend to the emotions and triggers of what distressed them in the first place.


Cognitive reappraisal can be encouraged by educating parents and teachers to help students learn to regulate emotions in a healthy way, observing and practicing, and educating about emotional intelligence. Those with higher emotional intelligence naturally reappraise more than suppress.

Family cultures of self-reflection and growth mindset are also important to cultivate healthy thought patterns and emotion regulation. "Individuals from cultures that value self-reflection and insight tend to use reappraisal more frequently than average, whereas individuals from cultures that value open expression of emotion tend to use suppression less frequently" (McRae & Gross, 2020).


Cultivating Gratitude


Finding something to be grateful for in a challenging situation is a type of cognitive reappraisal. When we can learn something from a difficult experience, it can help and give it meaning. Considering a situation from different perspective can allow us to reframe a situation more accurately. Seeing other perspectives can also help us cope and leave us feeling a bit more empowered.


Specific questions to ask yourself as you reappraise a situation can include:

  • Could there be any positive outcomes that result from this situation?

  • Might there be something you feel grateful for about the situation?

  • What might you learn from the experience?

  • How can you grow from this situation?


While no one wants to experience emotional distress, it is not realistic or healthy to try to escape our experience in the human condition. We can make the choice to avoid or suppress and cause more misery for ourselves down the road, and negatively impact others. Alternately, we can face the negative patterns our thoughts have fallen into, acknowledge and feel the painful emotions, then help ourselves assess, readdress, and make sense of things in a way that enhances our experience of living.


 



Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org



 



References


Cutuli, D. (2014). Cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression strategies role in the emotion

regulation: an overview on their modulatory effects and neural correlates. Frontiers in Systems

Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00175


Le, B.M. and Impett, E.A. (2016). The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive

emotions during parental caregiving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42(3), 323-336.

DOI:10.1177/0146167216629122.

McRae, K., and Gross, J.J. (2020). Emotion regulation. Emotion, 20(1),1-9. Retrieved from


Richards, J.M., and Gross, J.J. (1999). Composure at any cost? The cognitive consequences of emotion

suppression. PSPB, 25(8), 1033-1044.


Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M, Nyklicek, I., and Denollet, J. (2008). Emotion regulation: Conceptional and clinical issues. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. NY, NY.







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