BOTTLED UP EMOTIONS: What Does It Mean To Repress Feelings? Causes, Signs, And Effects

IMAGE SOURCE: PEXELS (Giovanni Calia)

“I hate the feeling of discomfort when I talk about my emotions. I build a wall within me so that no unpleasant pain would inflict me. I feel safe to keep my emotions aside in a bottle of denials and negative vibes. My self-defense says, ‘No trespassing’.” 

Perhaps the lines sound familiar to someone who has been avoiding unwanted feelings. Psychologically, this condition is described as “Repression or Repressed Emotions.” Others call it “Bottled Up Emotions”.

WHAT ARE REPRESSED EMOTIONS?

According to a study by Bert Garssen published in 2007 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, repression of emotion is “the general term that is used to describe the tendency to inhibit—consciously or unconsciously— the experience and the expression of negative feelings or unpleasant cognitions in order to prevent one’s positive self-image from being threatened.” 

A repressed emotion is often characterized by a sense of control, restraint, detachment, and non-expression. It has a defensive trait that hides or denies feelings instead of expressing them in the face of discomfort. It hates the thought of being shamefully exposed to others. “No spotlight on what I feel, please,” is the mantra of one with repressed emotions.

It is psychologically different from suppression in which the latter chooses to purposefully avoid an unpleasant event in a short time but “addresses it sooner rather than later”. Whereas, repression chooses not to process an undesirable situation that “might usually manifest in a range of psychological and physical symptoms”, according to Healthline.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE REPRESSED EMOTIONS?

Individuals with repressed emotions often prefer to be private, discreet, and rarely open up to people about personal afflictions, even in small group gatherings. They avoid entering into the world of anxiety or engaging within, according to various studies.

They feel out of touch or disconnected when unwanted feelings are discussed during social conversations. When asked about certain experiences and emotions, they feel uneasy, irritated, and distressed. They tend to quickly change the subject, disregard strong emotions that arise, and talk about other matters instead.

They escape to explore or process unpleasant feelings by overeating, oversleeping, overworking, or spending plenty of time on Netflix, social media, and video games. Others turn to addictive substances such as alcohol.

WHAT CAUSES ONE TO REPRESS FEELINGS?

Research suggests that repressed emotions are strongly linked to social traumatic experiences and cultural behavioral factors in the early stages of life. 

The culture of emotional detachment during childhood is the primary factor of unprocessed emotions. Infrequent talks and lack of life-giving conversations at home deny or block the capacity of the inner child to properly address life’s negative and positive emotions.

Common statements such as “Don’t cry”, “Crying is a sign of weakness”, “Be strong”, invalidate or neglect the need of the child to be familiar with the nature of suffering, as well as confronting, processing, and overcoming challenging situations. 

When emotional expressions are denied or criticized at home, a child grows up feeling uncomfortable talking about hurts, disappointments, frustrations, or any negative feelings. They also tend to abhor people or situations that are highly emotional and avoid them at all costs, lacking compassion, understanding, and sensitivity about how others feel.

The culture of shaming is another factor of repressed emotions. It insinuates rejection and invalidates pain when an individual is shunned for sharing a certain distressing story or feelings. Careless responses such as “Stop being emotional,” “Let it go and move on,” “You lack EQ”, lead the person to protect one’s self from another humiliation or shameful situation by putting on a mask that says, “I am okay.” 

The person then isolates and withdraws from certain people, events, and places that bring back traumatic memories. A traumatized child or individual masters the tendency to bottle up emotions, shut down unwanted feelings, push away the pain, or numb the capacity to feel when emotional privacy is threatened.

“It’s NOT okay to NOT be okay,” it lingers in the head of an emotionally repressed individual who wears the mask of pretense and the armor of avoidance when socializing with people.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EMOTIONS ARE REPRESSED?

“Over time, avoidance becomes a prison, because after a while you begin to feel the need to avoid many situations, people, experiences, and places that may bring the negative emotion to mind, stir it, or remind you of it. And the more you avoid, the weaker you feel, the more your coping skills diminish, and the less of life you can experience.” Noam Shpancer Ph.D., Insight Therapy

When bottled up emotions are progressively guarded, they inflate and explode in time, posing danger to physical and emotional health. 

It is reportedly linked to decreased immune system function and physical ailments such as muscle tension, body pains, appetite changes, fatigue, sleep problems, nausea, and digestive problems. It also affects other areas of mental health such as stress, anxiety, and depression. It may also play a part in chronic illnesses, according to Healthline.

The decrease in body immunity is confirmed by studies in 1997, reporting that emotionally repressed individuals are “vulnerable to a variety of illnesses ranging from common colds to cancer.” Moreover, it is implied that “individuals who mask and deny their inward feelings, characteristically suffer the most.”

Another study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester in 2013 reveals that individuals “who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%.”

“Avoiding a negative emotion buys you short term gain at the price of long term pain.”Noam Shpancer Ph.D., Insight Therapy

Certainly, the cost is very high and physical health suffers the most when emotions are repressed and not properly processed. Nonetheless, it’s not too late to start afresh and manage emotions well. The key is the willingness to be open.

HOW DO YOU REGULATE AND RELEASE REPRESSED EMOTIONS?

The primary aim of healing the repressed self is to unlock the door of trapped emotions. It will be very difficult and uneasy at first to step into the world of pins and needles, but worthwhile if every unprocessed feeling is resolved.

Take time to slow down.

Emotionally-repressed people do not like the idea of being alone with their thoughts. They unconsciously or consciously battle with the noise raging within by distracting themselves through different social activities.

Taking time to slow down helps one to get in touch with emotions and listen to the neglected cries of the heart. It is in unhurried moments that we learn self-awareness. To slow down is a moment to engage within to identify feelings of consolation and desolation. It is a call to our depths to connect with self. 

“Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in secret, You will make wisdom known to me.” – Psalm 51:6, NASB 

Action: Practice slowing down. Disconnect from your gadget. Take a break from social media. Close your eyes. Breathe. Connect within. 

Read more about slowing down in another post: UNHURRIED LIVING

Acknowledge and name the emotion. 

Emotionally-repressed individuals find it difficult to confront and verbalize internal struggles due to traumatic and shameful experiences. Another thing is the denial or skepticism that the habit of numbing self from pain is a problem.

To acknowledge that there is a need or something is wrong leads to a life free from shame, pretentiousness, false image, and long-term illnesses. We learn to accept vulnerability and manage emotions maturely and responsibly.

To identify the emotion is like describing to a physician the exact physical pain points to get the right diagnosis and therapy. We get to learn and understand what we feel, why we feel, and work through it step by step in healthy ways.

Action: Practice acknowledging your emotion through writing. Identify a certain feeling by name, “I feel disappointed today because….” or “I feel rejected right now because…” You can try private letter-writing, addressing the person who hurt you and describing the nature of pain you experienced in a particular situation. The letter does not need to be sent for not all offenders are open or ready to validate the pain. The most important thing is the practice of facing, naming, and releasing the imprisoned hurts.

Practice the art of expressing emotions. 

Facing and confronting the old and stuck painful memories can be overwhelming. There are ways to express one’s state of emotion in creative ways.

Drawing, painting, writing, poetry, music, and photography are some of the ways that we can practice the art of expressing ourselves.

A study in 2010 states that arts can serve as an aid for reducing stress, depression, and alleviating the burden of chronic illnesses. “Arts might be used in a variety of ways to heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns,” the health psychologists suggest.

Action: Set aside time each day or week to express yourself through arts. You can draw something that illustrates your emotion. You can write them in words through journaling, poetry, or a song. Try visiting an art museum or a travel destination and take photographs of the details or moments that resonate with what you feel. Then describe each drawing, painting, or photograph in words.

If you think you have the signs of repressed emotions, being open is the first step towards freedom. Talk to a professional Therapist or certified Counselor who can clinically help access, release, and regulate unprocessed emotions with you. Moreover, engage in a safe place of community that facilitates the unburdening of the soul and is open to listen and talk about the realities of life without negative interactions.

Know that it is okay to not be okay. It’s time to favor yourself with self-compassion.

 

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