Let's explore the profound psychological benefits of emotional repression while delving into the often-overlooked physical toll it can take on our physical well-being.
Emotional repression sounds like something bad. Something we shouldn’t do. Something we should see a psychologist about. However, my experience as a physician has taught me two surprising and important lessons about the impact of repressing emotions has on our emotion and physical well-being:
The truth is that when it's necessary, emotional repression is a good thing.
Repressing emotions at the time allows us to get through traumatic times. But, if left unchecked, those repressed emotions can have serious effects on our physical health.
In this article, I'm going to break down how repressing emotions can be both good and bad.
My experience talking with thousands of patients has taught me crucial aspects of repression that are unknown or misunderstood by patients, psychologists, and most of the medical community.
These misunderstood aspects are very relevant to our overall emotional and physical health.
To get started, it is important to understand the meaning of two terms that are widely used to describe the non-feeling of powerful emotions: suppressed emotions and repressed emotions.
Although these 2 terms seem interchangeable, they are very different from each other.
Suppression of our emotions is a process nearly all of us do on a daily basis, multiple times per day. When we suppress emotions, we consciously choose to avoid or hold our emotions back.
For example, when we are very upset or sad, we do our best to divert our attention.
We do this by keeping busy, watching TV, drinking alcohol and doing other activities to take our mind off whatever is bothering us.
After the death of a close family member, we divert our attention away from our sadness. We still feel the pain, but we are better off if we can keep it from monopolizing our attention or overwhelming us.
Suppression is an important component of our emotional resilience. It enables us to continue functioning. Many eventually deal with these emotions over time, at a pace they can handle. Others don't deal with them.
Repressing emotions is very different. It is an unconscious process that we don't even realize. During this process, powerful and potentially debilitating emotions are kept from our awareness completely. Like suppressed emotions, this process allows us to keep going during times of extreme stress, traumatic events, and prolonged periods of extreme stress.
A perfect example of this is a soldier on a battlefield. The emotions from battle are repressed so the soldier can keep fighting and stay alive. This allows them to make rational choices and not freeze in the moment.
As I mentioned, our ability to keep powerful emotions out of our awareness without even knowing it is a tremendous gift of evolution that is vital to our emotional resilience and survival.
I’ve personally seen many patients who have been through hell, and tell those events never affected them emotionally.
Repressing emotions enables us to move on from severe or prolonged stress or trauma without suffering psychological consequences like chronic anxiety, depression, or a complete emotional breakdown.
Although repression plays such a huge part in our emotional lives, very few recognize the concept or role of repression in our survival. Amazingly, most books on emotional resilience don’t even mention it!
Almost no one realizes that powerful repressed emotions are hidden within us. These hidden emotions can greatly affect our physical health if they are not dealt with.
For decades, most mind/body research has focused on the impact of the emotions we can feel. Emotions like anger, fear, sadness. But this research has almost completely overlooked the impact of the powerful emotions we don’t feel.
An example of this overlooked impact has to do with my area of specialization; Hypertension. This medical condition that affects millions of people has been considered a classic mind/body disorder.
In other words, decades of mind/body research set out to prove that daily stress and emotional distress can cause hypertension, and that mind/body interventions like meditation can fix it.
To this day, these claims have never been proven true.
In fact, in most patients, hypertension is not a mind/body disorder at all. It is usually linked to mechanisms related to the kidneys.
However, it is clear to me from years of clinical practice and research that in a percentage of patients, there is a mind/body connection that is linked to repressed emotions.
Emotions related to severe or prolonged stress, or a traumatic or tragic event. Usually from long ago. These emotions are usually not even recognized by the patient.
Many prevalent chronic medical conditions whose causes and treatments are still a mystery are a result of repressed emotions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or ME/CFS, being one of them. The treatments prescribed for these conditions typically don't do the job and often comes with unwanted side effects.
In my book, Hidden Within Us; a Radical New Understanding of the Mind-Body Connection, I present the evidence supporting the unsuspected role of repressed emotions in the development of many very prevalent chronic medical conditions whose cause and treatment have remained inadequately understood.
These illnesses include hypertension, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, chronic pain disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and likely many others.
In saying this, I want to emphasize that repressed emotions is not always the cause of illness in all patients with these conditions. They are relevant in a proportion of patients and this differs from illness to illness.
For example, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) tragically, remains unexplained and untreatable in most patients.
From my experience, I think CFS is linked to repressed emotions in many patients. Given the years of unrelieved suffering, this understanding needs to be considered from the outset.
It is so important for the medical community and general public to understand that this concept is not just of theoretical interest. As I explain in the book, this new understanding offers new treatment options.
For some, it can open the door to gaining awareness of long-hidden emotions, and to both emotional and physical healing. For others it can result in identifying proper medications to address the psychological issues in order to solve the physical conditions.
This award-winning book by Dr. Mann dives deep into the relationship between repressed emotion and illness. Our ability to repress emotions is a vital gift of evolution, but, silently, the emotions we've repressed do persist and can affect our health years later. This recognition can lead to new pathways to understanding, treatment, and healing.