There are lots of reasons why some of us tend to ‘bottle things up’ and just ‘get on with it’. The British ‘stiff upper lip’ tendency of remaining unemotional and resolute in the face of difficulties stands strong. While slowly being recognised, male culture is still dominated by messages of needing to be ‘strong’ and ‘unemotional’, as though the two are inherently linked. There remains a stigma attached to expressing and talking about feelings; whether this is a result of pride, a fear of being perceived as weak, or simply feeling uncomfortable disclosing personal experiences. Having said this, there is a balance to be sought; there are times when we need to be able to remain emotionally stable, perhaps at work, or in supporting others. Breaking down in the middle of the office, or demonstrating your overwhelming anxiety in front of your children, may not be optimal either. Regulating our emotional experiences is a functional skill. Many people may have a tendency to keep things to themselves, but that is not to say they are not processing things in their own way or doing what they need to do to get through the day. So where does the balance lie? And are there downsides of ‘bottling things up’ or is this as good a strategy as any?
For many of us, how we tend to recognise, express and manage our feelings, can be related back to our experiences growing up. We learn about emotions and how to self-regulate through our early interactions with our parents; we look to our main caregivers to know how to express and manage difficult experiences. Indeed, we learn what different physiological sensations and emotions are through the eyes of our parents and the words they use to label them. Families can have very different scripts about emotional expression and how problems are to be managed and resolved. For some, being ‘emotional’ may have elicited some judgement or hostility from others in the family. For some, big heart-to-heart moments may have been the norm. Can you think of a particularly difficult moment when you were young? How was it dealt with? What response did you get from those around you? These learned ways of coping often stick with us and are taken forward into adult life. Doing something to the contrary then becomes more of a challenge.
Bottling things up or ‘emotion suppression’ can be an effective short term strategy for getting through difficult times. Our minds can shut down to strong feelings to protect ourselves from feeling overwhelmed. There is something to be said for not becoming bogged down with ruminative thinking, dwelling on worries we can’t do anything about, or losing ourselves in painful feelings for prolonged periods. Many people use distraction to keep going; whether that’s through keeping busy, using alcohol or even over-exercising to maintain high levels of endorphins. Many will avoid talking about themselves or difficult things; they may avoid reminders of particular topics, all to keep their emotions at bay. Much of the time, this will be a short term functional strategy for getting through a rough patch. However, research has highlighted what a significant and detrimental impact this can have over time on our mind and body.
What is key to understand, is that just because we are not being emotionally expressive, it doesn’t mean our minds and body are not holding onto to the stress we are feeling internally. When we are actively distracting ourselves, or shutting down to our internal experiences, we can lose awareness of our state of mind and our physiological experiences. These are clues as to how we are doing and what we might need to do to look after ourselves; in shutting down to these, we are potentially missing key bits of information as to our well-being. If you are someone who tends to supress your emotions, do you notice any of the following drawbacks?
- Feeling detached, withdrawn
- Lacking energy, fatigue, feeling listless
- Lacking in motivation or concentration
- Feeling edgy, irritable or tense
- Frequent experiences of ‘crashing’ perhaps at the weekend or when going on holiday, reaching ‘burn-out’ at work
- Emotional volatility – unpredictable and overwhelmingly strong waves of emotion leading to frequent highs and lows.
Research has shown that consistent emotional suppression can lead to increased physical stress, cortisol levels, blood pressure and incidence of diabetes and heart disease. Some research points to lowered immunity, and the effects of high levels of tension on the body including stiff joints and bone weakness. More interesting still, it has been shown to result in poor concentration, poor memory and a higher incidence of misunderstandings in social situations. Perhaps more obviously, it can have a notable impact on communication patterns within relationships in our lives, leading to increased dissatisfaction and unhealthy patterns of relating. Those who consistently avoid emotions are shown to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression over the course of their lifetime.
We all vary in how we cope, and how much we can cope with. However, if the above sounds familiar to you, there may be a risk that you are sticking to a strategy of bottling things up just a little too much. Trying to balance this out might be beneficial for both your emotional and physical well-being. That is not to say you must start disclosing your inner most secrets overnight. Small steps are likely to be much more manageable; whether that’s testing out what it’s like to open a little with a loved one, chatting more to friends, or simply not investing so much energy into habitual avoidance tactics.
While it may feel a big step, opening up in therapy can feel more manageable for some; talking to a neutral and non-judgemental therapist can help you explore things at a pace which suits you, in a safe and contained way. Like most things, this takes some getting used to and practice. The potential benefits however are likely to be significant and with time, can be generalised to improved ways of managing and relating in your day to day life.
If you would like to think something through further, or for more information check out www.peterkinpsychology.com and get in touch.