“Keep it together.” “Stay cool as a cucumber.” “Keep a stiff upper lip.” These are all popular phrases used to describe a common but damaging phenomenon: bottling up your emotions. Some people do not see anything wrong with suppressing their emotions or teaching their children to do the same. To them, emoting in public is disruptive, impolite, bad manners or a sign of weakness. Keeping emotions to yourself, however, is a form of control, restraint, manners or the sort of “keep calm and carry on” strength that is often admired.While emotional suppression is often linked to British stereotypes or wealthy, elderly women, emotional suppression is actually very common. People of both genders and all ages, races and economic means make it a habit to bottle up their emotions and keep their feelings hidden. This, however, can prove to be disastrous for a variety of reasons.
If you drank soda as a child, you probably played a harmless prank on your sibling or friend using the sugary drink or had the prank played on you. The prank is simple. One person shakes a can of soda and hands it to a second person, the unsuspecting victim. This victim then opens the soda can. The extra bubbles and pressure created by shaking the can sends the soda everywhere and covers the victim in sticky, sugary liquid. Bottling up your emotions turns you into a shaken soda can. You can keep the emotions suppressed for a long time, but eventually, you will explode, and all those bottled up emotions will come pouring out. You might end up letting those emotions out when you are already in an emotional state such as during an argument with a friend or family member. You might let that coworker who has been needling you for months finally have it as you tell them what you really think of them. You might also simply explode at the random stranger in the grocery store who bumped into you as they tried to reach the chicken stock. None of these are ideal situations, but they are what happens if you continue to bottle up your emotions. You eventually crack, and someone is on the receiving end of months of toxic, built up wrath.
Most people do not want to be around someone who, in their eyes, can completely lose their cool over a dropped stapler. Your random blow-ups, however, are not the only thing that keeps people from liking you if you are bottling up your emotions. Recent research has shown that people who suppress their emotions are seen as less likable. This could be because those people who suppress their emotions are seen as being less empathetic. They show fewer emotions so the people around them assume that they cannot relate or do not relate to other people’s troubles. This, in turn, can make the person suppressing their emotions even more reluctant to show their emotions because they fear rejection. This vicious cycle then leads to the person suppressing their emotions feeling more and more isolated or lonely.
In addition to negatively impacting your social relationships, bottling up your emotions could actually have serious consequences for your mental and emotional health. If you bottle up your emotions, you can end up isolating yourself. Feelings of isolation, in turn, are one of the leading causes of depression.
Suppressing your emotions might also end up leaving you unable to express your emotions even when you want or need to express something. Some people who spend much of their time suppressing their emotions find that they almost forget how to express their emotions. Someone who never allows themselves to express their anger might find that they later struggle to speak up when something makes them justifiably angry. Their attempt to stay calm ends up making them a doormat.
Your physical health is not immune to the effects of emotional suppression either. A study conducted by psychologists from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that emotional suppression could increase your risk of heart disease and cancer. It makes sense, if you think about it. Earlier research linked negative emotions to the development of heart disease. If you never let yourself express those unpleasant emotions, they simply simmer inside of you. Rather than having it out with your infuriating coworker and moving on by the end of the day, you stay angry for weeks over a transgression they have likely forgotten.
Researchers believe that bottling up your emotions increases health risks because it stresses you out. This is not news to anyone who regularly suppresses their emotions. Keeping a stiff upper lip is hard work, and you are constantly worried about someone managing to crack your thin veneer of calm. The constant and chronic stress that comes with trying to “keep it together” can wreak havoc on your body. Chronic stress can cause ulcers and other damage to your digestive tract. Stress also carries an increased risk of heart attack, cancer and diabetes.
In addition to the disasters that stress can bring by itself, chronic stress is also one of the leading causes of insomnia. The resultant sleep deprivation carries a host of risks that range from weight gain to brain inflammation to an increased likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. “Driving drowsy” also greatly increases your risk of being in a serious automobile accident. Studies have shown that after 17 to 19 hours awake, a person’s reflexes and concentration are as impaired as if they had a BAC of 0.05 percent. For comparison, a BAC of 0.04 percent is considered driving under the influence for commercial drivers, and many states are looking to reduce their legal intoxication limits to a BAC of 0.05 percent.
Despite the mounting evidence that emotional suppression is a disaster for human health as well as relationships, some people continue to suppress their emotions. If you are one of those people who feel that letting your emotions out is wrong, take a moment to think about whether or not the consequences of continuing to suppress your feelings are worth it. Which is worse, having someone roll their eyes because you teared up at a movie or driving your car into a ditch because your stress has not let you sleep? You decide.