It’s a common scenario: something bad happens. Whenever you think about it, you feel like you are losing control of your emotions. You cry. You scream. You lash out at people who love you. You don’t want to do anything. It may get to the point where you don’t even want to get out of bed.
A figurative but very real wall separates you from the rest of the world. So what do you do? You just don’t think about what has happened to you. You block the traumatic event from your memory and develop your coping skills, even if they are harming you.
The scenario above describes emotional suppression in trauma.
Suppressing painful emotions proves common when someone has experienced trauma. However, emotional suppression never ends well.
But there is hope. With the proper treatment, you can overcome emotional suppression and gain the skills necessary to keep moving forward.
Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is an “emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”
In other words, trauma can occur when a person experiences (or witnesses) a distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms their ability to cope. It is common for them to go through a range of intense emotions, including:
While these feelings are normal responses to a traumatic event, they can be incredibly overwhelming and lead some people to suppress them in an effort to regain a sense of control.
Emotional suppression, defined
Think back to messages you may have received when you were a child:
“It’s not a big deal.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way.”
“Just forget about it.”
While these statements may be common phrases from parents and caregivers, they dismiss emotions as “no big deal” and begin the sometimes life-long battle of emotional suppression.
Emotional suppression, the act of consciously or unconsciously shutting down overwhelming thoughts and feelings, is often seen as a coping mechanism in response to traumatic events. Basically, suppressing emotions means pushing them down and not allowing yourself to feel them.
Emotional suppression may involve:
- Using a distraction, like watching TV or playing computer games
- Avoiding situations that trigger emotional responses
- Using substances to numb the emotions
Many people use emotional suppression as a coping strategy at some point in their lives. In fact, research suggests that emotional suppression is a widely used type of emotional regulation strategy, especially in cultures where expressing emotions is not encouraged or is perceived as a weakness.
People suppress emotions, typically unconsciously, for a variety of reasons, including:
- To avoid negative emotions
- In order to cope with day-to-day life
- Because they are told to
- The trauma is just too painful to deal with
While emotional suppression may offer temporary relief, it can have long-term negative effects on mental and physical health. These long-term effects are important to understand.
Why suppressing emotions is not the answer
Research continuously shows that suppressing emotions can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. The research studies make logical sense: the more you suppress emotions, the higher the toll on your mental health.
However, when people experience intense emotions such as shame, anger, grief, or sadness, they may try to suppress those feelings in various ways, including through substance use.
Substances such as drugs or alcohol can temporarily numb emotional pain and provide a temporary escape from difficult emotions. Over time though, using substances can lead to dependence because the individual may turn to them whenever they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with their emotions.
Furthermore, using substances to manage emotions can lead to a cycle of addiction and emotional suppression, where the person continues to rely on substances to regulate their emotions rather than developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Trauma doesn’t always lead to addiction, but research shows that trauma and addiction hold a strong correlation.
Additionally, suppressing emotions can also lead to physical health problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Chronic pain
This 12-year study examined the correlation between emotional suppression and cardiovascular and cancer mortality. While the researchers Chapman et al. confirmed that more research should be done on this correlation, they also determined that the stress of suppressing emotions can lead to all-cause and cancer-related mortality.
In addition to its negative effects on mental and physical health, emotional suppression can also interfere with the process of healing from trauma. Feeling and expressing your honest emotions proves a cornerstone in trauma recovery. Suppressing emotions can prevent this vital step in the healing process, making moving forward and finding resolution more difficult.
Furthermore, emotional suppression can have negative effects on relationships. Suppressing emotions can lead to a lack of emotional intimacy and communication, which can strain relationships and make it difficult to establish trust and connection with other people.
Emotional suppression versus emotional regulation
The antidote to emotional suppression is emotional regulation. Regulating emotions involves managing emotions in a healthy and constructive way, rather than suppressing or denying them.
Psychology Today defines emotion regulation as:
“… the ability to exert control over one’s emotional state. It may involve behaviours such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.”
Emotional regulation can include techniques such as mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural therapy, and other forms of therapy that help individuals process and manage difficult emotions in a healthy way.
Emotional regulation is an essential skill for overall well-being and is associated with:
- Better mental health
- Improved relationships
- Greater resilience
- Improved professional success
- Recovery from trauma
- Increased well-being
Regulating emotions involves skills that may not come naturally at first, but the good news is that these skills can be learned and practised with healthy coping strategies.
Ways to cope with difficult emotions without suppressing them
Here are some healthy ways to cope with emotions and begin the path to regulating emotions:
Accept your feelings
Acknowledge your emotions and accept them without judging or criticising yourself. Understand that it is okay to feel the way you do, and that your feelings are a normal response to trauma.
Express your emotions
Expressing your emotions in healthy ways can help you process and release them. There are many ways to express your emotions—you can talk to a trusted friend or family member, write in a journal, or express your emotions through art or music.
Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your emotions. The goal of mindfulness is to allow your emotions to be present without judging them or suppressing them. Many mindfulness practices are helpful, including deep breathing, meditation, and journaling. These practices help you tune in to your emotions and allow them to flow freely.
Self-care means doing activities that help you relax and feel good. This could include exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, or engaging in hobbies that you enjoy. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally can help you manage your emotions and cope with trauma.
Talking to a therapist that you trust can help you identify and work through emotional suppression patterns in your life. Therapy can also help you learn healthy coping skills and develop better emotional regulation strategies.
Physical activity can help you release pent-up emotions and reduce stress levels. In fact, there has been a lot of research on the positive effects of exercise on mental health. Regular exercise or other physical activities can help you improve your emotional health and overall well-being.
Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Avoid negative self-talk and practice self-care activities. Keep in mind that you cannot shame yourself into better emotional regulation.
Accepting yourself where you are is key.
Overall, the key to avoiding emotional suppression is:
- Acknowledging and validating your emotions
- Finding healthy ways to express and release them
- Seeking support when needed
What is the bottom line?
Emotional suppression may provide temporary relief from the intense emotions associated with trauma, but it can negatively affect mental and physical health and interfere with the healing process.
Remember that emotions have to go somewhere eventually, and if they are not addressed, they will come out in unhealthy ways. They are never actually completely gone when they are suppressed.
It is important to seek help from professionals to learn healthy ways to manage and regulate painful emotions.
How can Camino Recovery help?
Camino Recovery understands that unresolved trauma is the root of many issues, including drug and alcohol addiction. That is why we believe in addressing trauma first.
If you or a loved one is suffering from trauma and emotional suppression, please know we are here to help.
Contact one of our specialists at Camino Recovery today to learn more about our treatment programs.