Health Agenda

Mental Health

Are there downsides to always trying to be positive?

Looking on the bright side of life might not be helpful in difficult times, with studies showing suppressing emotions can negatively affect our health.

Lucy E Cousins
February 2018

With sayings such as ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘no worries’ part of our daily vernacular, it seems that our society rates positivity highly. But if you’re having a tough time, stifling negative emotions doesn’t make them go away and could actually be unhealthy.

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 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed people who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%. 

Suppressing emotions

However, it’s not just your long-term health that can suffer if you suppress your negative emotions. There have been numerous studies showing 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. “We know that it can affect blood pressure, memory and self-esteem.”

Longer term, says Tarratt, there’s an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. And avoiding emotions can also “lead to problems with memory, aggression, anxiety and depression”.

A study from the University of Texas found that by not acknowledging our emotions we’re actually 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 Tarratt.

“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.”

Coping with strong emotions

Learning how to deal with strong emotions can be challenging. Tarratt recommends the following 4 steps if you’re feeling emotional and don’t know 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,” explains Tarratt. “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 identifying and describing the feeling can have a beneficial effect.

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, Tarratt 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 Tarratt, “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, will be beneficial. Studies have consistently shown that exercise is beneficial to emotional stress, including a 2015 study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion which found people experiencing difficult emotions regulated those emotions better after moderate aerobic exercise, such as jogging.

Tarratt also recommends practising forgiveness and gratitude towards the situations and people surrounding you.

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

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