What are they, what they are good for and why we sometimes suppress them
28th March 2019
Through a Pro Bono Session with a client, I came to research a bit more about emotions, what they are, why we need them, what benefits and functions they actually have and play in our lives.
This is what I love about my coaching and the life-long journey that comes with that new passion: With every client you get to research new topics, dive into subjects and a world you have never really explored so deeply before – your whole mental and emotional horizon is ever so evolving, developing and widening with every client you have any research you do. Just phenomenal.
So, I had this research about emotions and suddenly a whole new world opened up to me. What are actually emotions and what are they good for? Later on, I will touch on a subject in this blog-post which is a bit more psychologically orientated, not going to deep, but touching the surfaces of it.
Emotions are “a mental state, variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses and a degree of pleasure or displeasure”. Everyone has emotions, they are naturally belonging to us, they are part of us, we were born with them. It is, however, due to the course of time and the way we were raised (by our family and by society) how we deal with our emotions in our later lives.
Emotions play an important role in the way we think and act. Based on our emotions we make decisions every single day, may it be important, life-changing decisions or decisions about trivial things like: “ What I am going to have for dinner tonight?” So emotions are quite influential in fact. They are more physiological than psychological though. Their psychological significance comes from the meaning we give to them. Changes in states like pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, body temperature, and respiratory rate trigger emotions. Humans are more sensitive to changes in sound and scent than to visual patterns. In general, we respond with more intense emotion to changes we hear and smell than to those we see and to those that hurt and parch more than pleasures and appetites.
Every person, however, perceives and feels things differently. That is why some are more emotional than others.
So, what is the purpose of emotions? Why are they there? Whats their function and benefit for us?
Emotions can motivate us to take action
Because of an emotional response, you might be more likely to act on certain things and step into action.
Emotions help us to survive, thrive and avoid danger
Charles Darwin believed that emotions are adaptations that allow both humans and animals to survive and reproduce. When we are angry, we are likely to confront the source of our irritation. When we experience fear, we are more likely to flee the threat. When we feel love, we might seek out a mate and reproduce. Emotions serve an adaptive role in our lives by motivating us to act quickly and take actions that will maximize our chances of survival and success.
Emotions can help us to make decisions
Researchers have also found that people with certain types of brain damage affecting their ability to experience emotions also have a decreased ability to make good decisions.
Emotions allow other people to understand us and allow us to understand others
When we interact with other people, it is important to give clues to help them understand how we are feeling. These cues might involve emotional expression through body language, such as various facial expressions connected with the particular emotions we are experiencing.
In the past it was almost a tabu subject to show emotions openly in public, may it be in a public place or even at the workplace. Our society then was a society that kind of forbid to show emotions openly: 'What a disgrace' or 'How can you cry in public or even scream? - Have you got no manners/decency or respect for others?!' This, you might have experienced before or witnessed.
From my very good friend, who, at the moment, studies to become an alternative practitioner for psychotherapy, I got passed on a book/youtube video about “The revolutionary power of emotions” by Maria Sanchez. It amazed me, after listening to the video, what emotions do to us, but more how we deal with ourselves and our emotions. She talks about the loved and the unloved child in each and every one of us. Which basically means that there is always two sides in us: We were trained from our childhood that if we did something good, or acted a certain way, we were loved, respected, acknowledged and rewarded – this is the loved child. The unloved child is, when we have made experiences in the past, either on ourselves or we saw it with somebody else, that made us think that: “If I act like this or be like this then I will be alone, or don't get recognition or acknowledgement or praise etc.” So, usually with the unloved child, we try to keep that one hiding, not letting it out. If emotions come up we might suppress them because they tell us, if we display those emotions openly, may it to ourselves or others, we may feel like the unloved child, and most of us don't want that. Also, our society is a society of the loved child. Self-optimisation here stands pretty strong in the foreground: In today's world, we constantly have to get better, be better, transform ourselves to be the better version of ourselves, to train harder, to work harder to fit in and be seen as successful. With all that though we completely forget and hide our other side in us that suppresses certain emotions and behaviours to fit in - to correspond to the ideal picture. “Do not dance out of the line” (Ja nicht aus der Reihe tanzen). There is a big thing in society about acceptance: I have to be this way or that way to be accepted, I can't be like that, etc. No wonder do we have diseases like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders more and more happening to us these days.
Emotions are a communicator, communicating to us if something is wrong, or right, telling us if we are on the right track or not. Mostly, emotions point us in a certain direction, emotions are intuitive feelings of our body telling us something.
But why was it such a tabu and even sometimes is still now? Emotions, for a long time, and even now for a lot of people, display weakness. A lot of people suppress certain emotions out of the fear to show weakness, they hide their true selves in order to appear more mature, grown-up, manly, etc.
What happens though if you do suppress or numb your emotions?
Well, there is, first of all, a couple of different reasons why people do that:
To not show weakness (not showing our true selves)
To avoid experiencing certain feelings, situations or memories that don't feel good to them – they don't or can't handle those emotions, so they suppress them and push them away
Avoiding or suppressing emotions
When intense emotions surround us, we get into depression and then we become dangerous not just for our own self but also for others. In a psychological sense, this is a state where we have no control on emotions and thus our brain weakens in controlling emotions. We need to realize that up to what extent we can get control of our emotions. People who commit suicide have no control over their emotions. They never realize that they are a victim of their own emotions. Denied feelings turn into limiting beliefs that make people choose harmful behaviour. It paralyzes people from saying stop and making changes that would bring them more joy and sense of self-worthiness.
We need a brain and a heart strong enough so that no emotion can take control of us. This can be achieved by cultivating hobbies, doing things that please us, inculcating a sense of optimism and positivity around and practising breathing exercises and meditation. However, when others tell you to bury your feelings, it makes you question yourself and the messages your body is trying to send to you. We've been taught to ignore, deny, and avoid our emotions. Feeling leads to healing. When we push away, suppress, or criticize ourselves for having emotions, it comes with a very high cost: our health. In our society these days the words “Expressing your emotions is a sign of weakness, rather than strength” is a common and undeniably tragic truth.
A study from the University of Texas found that when we avoid our emotions, we're actually making them stronger. When you suppress your emotions, you are confusing and hurting your body in a profound way. Emotions are our body's way of getting us to take action. On a very primal level, our bodies are trying to keep us safe at all times.
Research suggests that suppressing emotions is associated with high rates of heart disease, as well as an autoimmune disorder, ulcers, IBS and gastrointestinal health complications. Whether you are experiencing anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, pushing those feelings aside actually leads to physical stress on your body. Studies show that holding in feelings has a correlation to high cortisol—the hormone released in response to stress—and that cortisol leads to lower immunity and toxic thinking patterns. Over time, untreated or unrecognized stress can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, problems with memory, aggression, anxiety, and depression. If we keep on suppressing our negative emotions they get buried in our subconscious mind which often results in mood swings, unexplained sadness, and mild depression. If in the future whenever we face any problem, we won’t just feel bad because of the current problem but also because of these suppressed emotions that we are holding on to.
People who regularly refuse to deal with their emotions honestly and fully are also likely to have more interpersonal challenges. They are less aware of the signals they are sending to others and are often more reactive and disconnected from themselves, which can lead to feelings of isolation and can interfere with relationships. Suppressed emotions have to leak out so that you may become psychologically stable.
Signs of suppressed emotions:
Losing interest in activities that were once fun
Conflict in your relationship(s)
Lack of commitment in the work place
Feeling tired a lot
Feeling even more powerful emotions
Fewer close friendships
Sometimes we are not able to consciously suppress our emotions because of the regularity with which they occur. We get so used to their presence that we no longer detect them. This is called emotional numbness. Even though you are no longer aware of these emotions that you became numb to, whenever something bad happens in the future, these emotions will resurface increasing the intensity of your bad emotions. Emotional numbness is a defense mechanism employed by the mind to avoid intense and overwhelming emotions such as fear, hatred, jealousy, and grief. When you go emotionally numb, you lose the ability to feel and experience your emotions on a psychological and emotional level. In this sense, emotional numbness is often clinically connected with dissociation, which is the disconnection from one’s memories, identity, environment, body, or senses. By covering up certain emotions, we are actually denying our true selves.
So, if we let our emotions out, identify and accept them, acknowledge the loved and the unloved child in us, we can start feeling what is really bothering us, get to know and understand ourselves better, get down to the root problem. This will take time. It may as well take a lifetime to accomplish, but eventually, you will start peeling back layers of layers that have built up over the years that have covered your original root problem, parts of your original characteristics, your true personality. And you will arrive at your innermost core where your root problem sits. You can then address this problem fully, honestly and authentically. Also, if you allow yourself to be with all your emotions, no hiding, no covering up or pretending – how much of a freeing feeling and sensation will you get for yourself? If anyone accepts you the way you are, with all your emotions, all your flaws and knuckles and imperfection – there will be a huge weight lifted off many people's shoulders. You can suddenly start to unfold yourself and show yourself in a totally new light with millions of possibilities. What a peaceful emotion that would be.
How can we start this process?
Take a moment to become aware of how your body is feeling during the day. Are you tense? If so, where? Are you breathing in a deep way or in a shallow way? How does it feel to take a few deep breaths? By doing this, you can begin to identify where feelings are stuck in your body. Then by diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing while your stomach pushes out on the inhale), you can activate your vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for regulating emotions, and when we take deep mindful breaths, we are literally massaging the intensity of our emotions.
Identify one emotion at a time
Simply acknowledging your emotion reduces the intensity of them, making them profoundly easier to manage. Your amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, gets stuck in an irrational thought process when you attempt to suppress your emotions. When you attempt to avoid what you are feeling, you aren't solving anything, and your brain will get stuck. When you identify what is bothering you—"I'm feeling stressed right now"—your frontal lobe gets to work. That brain region helps with problem-solving, finds solutions, and validates your experience, which can help you start to feel better.
Be kind to yourself and your mind
Practice self-compassion and self-care. Try not to invalidate yourself with dismissive or unhealthy self-talk about what you are feeling. When we stop and honour our emotions, this helps to reframe our thoughts in a more kind and loving way, such as how you would talk to a child or good friend.
When we learn to tune into our bodies, our thoughts actually slow down and offer us more control.
Accept your emotions
Motion unleashes emotions
Dance, jump, run, move. The unhealed wounds are stuck energy in our body. Therefore the motion releases these energetic blocks from your body. Whenever it feels difficult to connect with your emotions, move your body.
Write the emotions down
A journal is one of the best ways to work through your feelings, even if you may feel as though you have none at the moment. Every day, sit down and take some time to go through some of the events that occurred. Always ask yourself, how do I feel about this? With practice, you will begin to identify and work through some feelings that you didn't know you were having.
Talk to someone about your emotions
Learn to identify and express emotions