Suppression of Emotions, Positive or Negative, Increases Your Body’s Stress Burden

Up until now we have discussed the value of expressing emotions when you are distressed. When you become clear about your feelings and safely express them, it has a calming effect. Expressiveness is a wonderful tool for self-soothing.

Do the opposite effects occur when suppressing positive emotions?

You may think, “Why would anyone suppress positive emotions?”

It’s actually not unusual. Think of a saying like “Pride goeth before a fall”. There is a tendency to believe that you will be punished if you are too joyful.

Many people learn as they grow up to keep a stony look on their face. It’s just what serious, hardworking people do.

Also, when learning to suppress negative feelings, the suppression can easily spread to all feelings.

I just googled the phrase “keep a straight face”, and there were many entries, most of them on learning how to keep a straight face. So it seems that people are looking for ways to suppress their feelings.

I could give many more examples showing how deep our fear of expressing joy is. But this is enough to show that studying the effects of suppressing positive feelings is a worthwhile enterprise.

In this post I want to describe some exceptionally well-designed research that revealed the physiological impact of suppressing positive and negative emotions.

What I have to say here is based on elegant research done by James Gross and Robert Levenson, and published in two papers.

The first of the papers described how they developed effective methods of producing authentic emotions in the laboratory. They edited sections of videos that seemed capable of producing emotions. And then they went on to test whether their selections actually worked. Two good examples are the “faking orgasm” scene in “When Harry Met Sally” (to produce amusement) and actual footage of the surgical removal of a human arm (to produce disgust).

They spent years developing and testing these videos, and the videos worked well and better than previous methods.

In the second paper, they tested, among many other things, whether suppression of both positive and negative emotions elicited increases in physiological activity that correspond to the well known stress response of fight or flight.

That kind of reaction includes faster heart rate, sweaty hands, faster breathing and a wide range of other bodily responses that are useful for surviving when confronted with a lethal threat, but damaging when you experience them regularly at work, at home, or in any place that is part of your everyday life.

Their conclusion was clear: suppression of either kind of emotion elicits a fight or flight response.

So it would seem to be wise to avoid a life in which you are regularly or even constantly needing to suppress your feelings.


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