NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 7, 2017

How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems

Many people avoid dealing with their emotions because they think it will be too emotionally overwhelming (see my articles:  Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Feelings so You Can HealUnderstanding and Expressing Your Emotions in a Healthy Way, and Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotions).  Instead of allowing themselves to feel their emotions, they defensively suppress their emotions or numb themselves in order not to feel the unpleasant feelings.

How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems

Since we know so much more than we ever have in the past about the mind-body connection, we now know that these suppressed or numbed feelings don't just disappear--they often take a physical toll and result in serious medical problems.

Suppressed grief can also result in compulsive and addictive behaviors, like excessive drinking, abuse of drugs, compulsive gambling, compulsive spending, overeating, smoking as well as other psychological problems such as problems with anger management, depression and anxiety.

Fictionalized Vignette:  How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems:
The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how suppressed emotions can manifest in medical and psychological problems:

Bill grew up in a family where no one dealt with unpleasant emotions, except anger (see my article: Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome the Effects of Growing Up in a Family That Doesn't Talk About Their Feelings).

When he was 16, his paternal grandfather, who lived with Bill and his family, died unexpectedly.  Bill found out about his grandfather's death when he came home from school and his father told him that his grandfather died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack.  The emergency management technicians were just taking the grandfather's body out as Bill arrived.

Bill and his grandfather were very close.  As he heard the news from his father, he began to cry, but his father scolded him and told him not to be "such a crybaby."   He told Bill that he needed to "be a man" and "stop acting like a girl."

Hearing his father's words, Bill stopped crying and tried to follow his father's example.  Throughout the funeral, Bill watched his mother and sister sobbing, but the men in the family remained stoic.  From their examples, Bill learned that this was what it meant "to be a man."

At age 38, Bill went for a physical exam to find out the cause of his headaches.

After his doctor ruled out any other medical causes for Bill's headaches, he told Bill that his headaches were probably due to psychological problems, and he should see a psychotherapist.

How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems

When Bill went to therapy, as part of his family history, he also revealed that the men in his family, especially his father, never expressed any unpleasant feelings, except anger, because it was considered "unmanly."

Bill gave many examples of times when he felt very sad, including when his grandfather died, when he was told that he needed to "be a man" and stop crying.

Bill told his therapist that it had been many years since he had been aware of unpleasant feelings--except anger, and he often felt angry and would sometimes lash out at his girlfriend and family members.

Bill's therapist told him that he had learned from a young age to suppress most of his unpleasant feelings and suppressing his feelings had medical and psychological consequences for Bill.

His therapist explained the mind-body connection to Bill to help him understand why he was having his current problems (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into Unconscious Mind).

His therapist used Somatic Experiencing to help Bill to overcome the emotional numbing that he was experiencing (see my article: Understanding the Mind-Body Connection and Somatic Experiencing).

The work that Bill did with his psychotherapist was neither quick nor easy.  It took time.

Gradually, over time, Bill learned that allowing himself to feel his emotions and express them in a healthy way was not "unmanly."

Over time, Bill grieved the loss of his grandfather and other losses in his life that he never allowed himself to feel.

How Suppressing Emotions Can Lead to Medical and Psychological Problems

As Bill learned to allow himself to feel all his feelings, he no longer got headaches.  He was amazed that he had so much energy now that he wasn't using a lot of energy to suppress his feelings.

Although the vignette above is an example about a boy who suppressed his emotions and continued to engage in this behavior as an adult, this problem is not limited to men--it happens to women too.

Young girls and women are often told by well-meaning family members that they have to be "the strong ones" in the family to help others through difficult times.

The rationale behind this misguided advice is that the women are "supposed to be" the nurturers and caregivers in the family, so they can't allow themselves to feel or express their emotions, especially sadness, because they have to take care of everyone else.  As a result, this suppression of emotions is equally destructive for women too (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker).

People who have never been to therapy often think that "not suppressing emotions" means that they just "let it out" however it comes out.  This is definitely a misunderstanding of what it means to feel and express emotions.

The key is to feel and express emotions in a way that is healthy to the person with the emotions as well as the people around them.  So, it doesn't mean that they allow themselves to act in ways that are abusive to others or to themselves.

Cultural or family behavioral patterns are often factors that play a role in the suppression of emotions.  For example, as in the fictionalized vignette above, if a boy is told over and over again that "being a man" means that boys and men never allow themselves to feel or express sadness, this is a learned behavior that usually needs to be unlearned in therapy and replaced by healthy behavior.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether you're numbing yourself emotionally or you're engaging in other self destructive behavior to suppress emotions, you can get help in therapy before your self destructive behavior results in serious medical or other psychological problems (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

Anxiety and depression are often the result of pushing down emotions that people either fear or find unacceptable in some way.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to understand the root of your problems, work through unresolved trauma, and learn how to replace self destructive behavior with healthy ways of coping (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling to overcome these problems on your own, you can work with an experienced psychotherapist who can help you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many people to overcome self destructive patterns so they can lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.