Can always staying positive be bad for our health?
Searching for a silver lining could be a good coping mechanism, but studies show suppressing emotions to stay positive can negatively affect our health.
In Australia, it seems our society values the idea of staying positive given some of our common daily sayings like “she’ll be right” and “no worries”. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a 2021 study found that positive psychological skills can help to reduce mental illness and maintain mental health – even during a pandemic.
But if you’re having a tough time, stifling your negative thoughts doesn’t make them go away. Instead, bottling up emotions can be unhealthy for your mind and body.
A series of studies over the past few decades show that suppressing your emotions can – and does – affect your body and your mind. In fact, a 2019 study from the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research found that an ongoing reliance on concealing or suppressing emotion is a “barrier to good health”.
An earlier study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed people who bottled up their emotions even increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%.
Why suppressing emotions can be bad for your health
It’s not just your long-term health that can suffer if you suppress your negative emotions. A 2021 study conducted in Italy during the first wave of lockdowns showed that when we regulate or ignore our emotions, we can experience short-term mental and physical reactions as well.
“Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs,” says provisional clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt. She says the resulting emotional stress can impact your blood pressure, memory and self-esteem.
A study from the University of Texas found that by not acknowledging our emotions we’re making them stronger.
“For example, you might be angry at your brother and after stewing in your anger, not saying a thing, you could encourage an emotional outburst,” says Victoria. “So when you’re driving the car a few weeks later and someone cuts you off, you can get all-out road rage, causing an accident. That explosion and overreaction to a situation is your body’s way of releasing that pent-up emotion.”
How to deal with toxic positivity
Sometimes the pressure we feel to stay positive can be internal, and sometimes it can come from our friends and the society we live in, including from social media. But studies have found that well-meaning advice like “everything will be fine”, “onwards and upwards” and “it could be worse” can be just as unhelpful as our own internal pressure to suppress our emotions.
A study from the University of California found that a “cultural pervasiveness to seek or value happiness can represent a risk factor for symptoms and a diagnosis of depression” in adults.
Another American study found that youths (aged seven to 18-years-old) who felt they needed to value happiness highly were found to be “more depressed” as they weren’t able to reach their expected level of happiness.
So how do you respond to toxic positivity? Researchers have found that the act of “prioritising positivity” in everyday habits, as opposed to seeking overall happiness, can encourage a higher level of wellbeing, positive emotions and a decreased risk of depression.
This means if you seek out activities that you enjoy, you may form building blocks that will innately bring happiness and help regulate your emotions.
Coping with strong emotions
Learning how to deal with strong emotions can be challenging. Victoria recommends the following four steps if you’re feeling emotional and unsure of how to cope.
1. Acknowledge the emotion
Recognising you’re feeling a particular way is important. You don’t have to do this verbally, as long as you acknowledge it internally.
“We often might think we feel anger, but sometimes it’s more complex,” she explains. “We might feel sad, for example, but we’re reverting to anger to deal with the feeling.”
She suggests finding and understanding the core emotion behind how you’re feeling. Ask yourself, “Why am I acting this way? Why am I feeling this emotional reaction?”
Even the act of accepting, identifying and describing the feeling can have a positive effect on your health.
2. Confront the cause
If you’re able to, confront the person or situation that’s triggering the emotion with the goal of resolving the problem. If this isn’t possible, Victoria advises becoming an ‘observer’ to the situation and empowering yourself in the process.
“‘Observing' is basically taking yourself out of the equation and trying not to take things personally; looking at your situation as if you’re not a part of it. Try to calmly understand what the other person’s perspective is and what might make them behave in a certain way.”
She explains that observing is an opportunity to learn about the person, rather than taking their actions personally and getting angry or frustrated.
If confronting the situation isn’t possible, talking to another person about how you’re feeling can make the emotion less intense and can have a therapeutic effect on the brain.
3. Owning your response
In order to understand what you’re feeling, reflect on the way you reacted and dealt with the situation.
“Think about what has got you to this point,” says Victoria, “and how you can prevent that in future. If it’s unavoidable, such as grief, think about your behaviour and how you could have perhaps handled the emotions better.”
4. Make time for self-care
Any self-care activities you find effective, or that calm and relax you, can be beneficial. Studies have consistently shown that exercise is beneficial to emotional stress, including a study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion that found people experiencing difficult emotions regulated those emotions better after moderate aerobic exercise, like jogging.
A 2019 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal found conducting exercise involving mindfulness practice could help “implicit emotion regulation ability”. So adding some mindful yoga or meditation to your life could help your body cope with future stressors.
Need help improving your mood and awareness?
If you feel like you have trouble expressing or controlling your emotions, it may be helpful to speak to your GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Do you need to talk about your emotions?
Eligible members+ can also access a HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist at no cost.
Words by Lucy Cousins
Updated August 2022
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