We’re all guilty of it. Whether our kids are driving us crazy, our employer is being difficult, or our spouse says something that sets us off, being able to control and even suppress our emotions isn’t such a bad thing, especially when it’s done for the right reasons and in moderation.
But when it’s a regular part of our existence, says Robert W. Levenson, director of the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley, it can take a toll.
Suppressing emotions involves deliberately minimizing the outward signs of what we feel. Some emotions, says Levenson, are hardwired. For example, if someone takes something from you or threatens you in some way, there’s an almost primitive response that comes out without much thought. On the other hand, if you see a picture of puppies, you’re likely to react with love.
“In many species, that’s the entire game,” he says. But humans can manipulate emotions by adjusting our responses as emotions come up. “We can make the expression of an emotion less prominent,” Levenson says.
We’ve seen it with politicians on the debate stage or a celebrity who doesn’t want the media to grasp their feelings. Humans may not be able to completely erase the impact that an emotion has, but we can reduce its visibility. “Suppression is the strategy of controlling your emotional response,” he says.
Our emotions can be controlled in less direct ways as well. For example, by adjusting our lives in ways that are more emotionally pleasing. “If you don’t want to get angry, you can choose your friends more carefully,” says Levenson. “If you don’t want to be afraid, you may stay away from the things that scare you.”
Research shows that the act of holding back and suppressing emotions impacts our health, taking a biological toll on our physical bodies in the long term.
An October 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that “emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer” as a result of a lack of regulation in the endocrine system, likely causing a continuous stress response.
Other research, published in the October 2010 edition of the British Journal of Health Psychology, found that emotional suppression also had an impact on heart health by causing “stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity.”
“If the biological response to showing emotion is X, the biological cost of controlling that emotion is 2X,” says Levenson.
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Some research has even shown that emotional suppression can increase the risk of developing dementia and other kinds of memory loss.
Researchers found in a March 2016 study published in the journal Nature Communications that emotional suppression can cause amnesia. The work of pushing away past experiences may damage the way our brain holds memories in the future.
According to the study, suppressing memories can leave behind a “virtual lesion” or “an amnesic shadow for any experiences.”
Additionally, researchers found a link between memory suppression and Alzheimer’s disease in a December 2020 article in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. The authors write that “when facing adverse events in life, suppressing one’s emotions appears to be associated with an increased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
But Levenson is skeptical. We don’t yet know what causes dementia, so blaming it on emotional suppression is a stretch, he says.
While it may increase the risk of memory loss and stress-induced cancer, suppressing your emotions isn’t all bad. Sometimes, a cost/benefit analysis shows that it’s worth it. “It can be used strategically,” says Levenson.
In the short term, suppressing emotions might help avoid conflicts. For example, if there’s a hot-button issue in your marriage in which you know both of you will react in anger, it might be worth the effort to control or suppress your response.
Some research has even shown that caretakers who are better able to control their emotions in response to difficult stimuli are better at coping with the emotional distress that goes along with caretaking.
A September 2021 article in The Journals of Gerontology found that “caregivers who are unable to suppress emotional behavior in response to disgusting stimuli may be at greater risk for anxiety.” This could be because they feel guilty responding negatively to the person whom they are caring for.
Humans have a sophisticated emotional system filled with direct and indirect means of controlling the end result. Some of us are better than others at controlling our emotions, but we still have to deal with people whom we love (and some we don’t) that can cause us a lot of emotional distress. It’s how we react to those emotions that have the greatest impact on our overall health.
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