Opinion

Bottling up negative emotions can be just as harmful as acting on them | Gustafson

Having been born and raised in England, I am intimately familiar with the habit of keeping a “stiff upper lip.” As a cultural phenomenon, this means that emotions – positive or negative – are not readily expressed, at least not in public. Some may take this as good manners, others as signs of rigidity and unnatural restraint. In any case, researchers warn that perpetual emotional suppression is nothing benign but can lead to potentially serious mental and physical health problems and even premature death.

One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer. This confirms earlier studies that have linked negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression to the development of heart disease.

The health risks increase, it seems, when people have no way of expressing or acting on their feelings, the researchers say. We know that stress can build up and become chronic when our “natural” fight-or-flight responses meant to help us survive in conflictous situations are frustrated. Similarly detrimental effects may occur when negative emotions remain unexpressed.

Some experts suggest that acknowledging emotions, especially distressing ones, and airing them from time to time is an important component of mental health.

In our culture, people quickly feel guilty or ashamed when they appear as being overly negative or critical, says Tori Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and writer based in Atlanta. We are biased toward positive thinking, which is worth cultivating, but problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time, she says.

“Anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.”

But how about positive emotions? Can they make us healthier? Yes, especially if we allow ourselves to express them, a separate study from Harvard found.

Individuals with great emotional vitality have a much lower risk of developing heart disease compared to the less emotionally expressive, according to Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor of human health and development at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report. There are mechanisms at play we don’t fully understand yet, she says, but there is evidence that positive emotions can provide some sort of “restorative biology.”

Obviously, neither positive nor negative feelings arise in a vacuum. An essential part of emotional well-being is our ability to create and maintain a conducive environment where our various needs are satisfied and our bodies, minds and souls are nourished. Not all, but a great deal of that is within our control and can benefit from our care. That in itself should give us cause to feel better.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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