An important part of dealing with unhealed trauma is processing the hidden emotions. Having grown up in a dysfunctional household, being abused by parents and caregivers, or having to deal with any other traumatic event, it’s normal to develop the tendency to repress your emotions. This is a method used to protect your brain from these painful situations and the memories that come from it.
However, a difference exists between suppressing your emotions and repressing them. Suppression means that you’re putting your feelings to the side because of a situation or emergency. Imagine having to do an important school presentation with the deadline quickly approaching but you’re arguing with a close friend or family member. You would like to deal with the issue at hand but your work needs to be completed immediately. You file your anger or malcontent in the “later” folder and complete your assignment and deal with your problem. Repression means that whatever emotion you’re dealing with will not be dealt with later, or at all. It will be promptly stuffed down into the pits of your heart and mind, never to resurface.
But emotions that aren’t dealt with are like a volcano erupting after seemingly being dormant. According to a 2019 study by Patel & Patel, the consequences of repressing your emotions manifest in a compromised immune system, which can range from illnesses such as:
- anxiety disorders
- depressive symptoms
- kidney failure
For the sake of your health, it’s extremely important to build a relationship with your emotions where you can regulate and process them, so that you don’t have to suffer from some of these illnesses.
Here are a few warning signs that you might not be processing your emotions due to unhealed trauma.
- Numbing Out
When you struggle with your feelings, you might feel a sense of inner numbness or feel blank. Your emotional world is gray and because you don’t acknowledge your feelings, you use other things to fill your time. You may avoid your emotions by numbing yourself with substances, food, streaming services, shopping and social media. By mindlessly scrolling or possibly oversleeping, you outrun your feelings.
To help shift your mindset and to no longer use tools to escape your feelings long-term, try scaling back the time you spend on some of the distraction tools. Do you scroll for hours at a time? Set a timer to get up and clean around your place. Do you feel burdened with no one to tell? Reach out to those who love you and find relief in telling them about what you’re going through.
- Chronic Busyness
In our current world, we’re almost always busy. There are many things to do and seemingly little time for rest. However, for some of us, we can turn our tasks into everlasting To-Do Lists to avoid dealing with the emotions and inner turmoil that might be brewing inside.
By overcommitting, overworking and going from one thing to the next doesn’t allow room for emotional processing. If you can’t sit alone in silence and with your own thoughts, that can be a huge sign that you’re using your work to repress your feelings. A suggestion to help ease this behavior is to treat your emotions like your work. By allocating time to process a current emotion and sitting with that feeling surprisingly makes it easier for it to pass by. Imagine your anger, shame, for example, as a person and say “hello, emotion, you’re welcome here.” It will definitely feel weird and awkward but it works.
- Disconnection From Needs
A large amount of emotional repression stems from childhood. Being in an environment where you were taught to “be grateful,” that you have “no reason to be upset” or to “calm down”. This repeated sentiment is now negatively affecting you and your connection to your own needs because you have conditioned yourself to distance yourself from them to survive in life. You may even have experiences that you’re not sure you enjoy but you just let them happen.
When you’re disconnected from your feelings, you don’t know what you need. According to Anna Zapata, LPC, if you don’t acknowledge and make space for your feelings, you won’t know whether you need to self-soothe or comfort yourself. You might have been shamed or punished for expressing your emotions but it’s necessary for you to both identify and express them. A mental health professional can definitely help with this as well. A practice to adopt to help you better connect with your emotions is to start by identifying the emotions more and research what they mean. Anger, for example, means that you might need to set a boundary or confront somebody or something.
- Emotional People Make You Uncomfortable
If you’ve had a lifetime of emotional repression, you might have learned to express very little emotion. You keep it light and breezy, some people might even call you chill, calm or laid-back. So when you see someone exhibiting strong emotions like grief, you might become confused, disgusted or on edge at their displays. It causes a collision within to watch somebody do that. So you would retreat.
Another thing that might annoy you is when people ask you about your feelings. It’s extremely uncomfortable and you feel quite distressed and irritated when this particular spotlight is on you. A good strategy to adopt is to start confronting and coping with your own emotions. When you can increase your comfort levels with your own feelings, it makes it easier to talk about them. Practice using ‘I’ statements. “I feel good about this” , “I feel confused”, “I feel scared”.
- Ongoing Stress
An interesting fact about people who have been emotionally repressed since childhood is that afterwards, all of these moments of holding all of their emotions inside evolves into anxiety being their natural state. They become afraid when they’re not afraid. If not, they might feel nervous or low energy, even if they are not sure why. Some symptoms of stress can be:
- muscle tension & pain,
- fatigue and sleep issues
- nausea and digestive problems.
A helpful exercise for dealing with this sign, is to minimize or to improve the way that you manage the stress. This can positively affect your mind and body, reduce anxiety and assist you in regaining feeling. You can practice stress-busting techniques mindfulness – which is gently focusing your awareness on the present moment repeatedly – and meditation. A 2020 study by Kurth and Luders found that long-term meditation practitioners have lower levels of annual brain loss in regions related to nervous system processing, mood regulation and integration of emotions, improving mental health.
Do you recognize any of these signs within you or someone you know? While this list doesn’t contain all of the signs, it can be a good starting place. And the good news is, with consistent practice, you can learn how to be at peace with your emotions, especially the “negative” ones, so as not to be controlled by them or to unintentionally make others the masters of your own emotions and actions.
It’s important that you are patient and kind to yourself while working through repressed emotions. “It’s common to have a wide range of emotions, but it can feel overwhelming at times”, says therapist Ashley Ertel. “The fact that you’re doing the work is something to be really proud of.” Emotions make life a richer tapestry of experience and when we can connect with people (who are good for us) on those deeper levels, it improves our quality of life, where we’re healthier and happier.
*Darcy, A. M. (2023, March 6). Are you emotionally repressed? how to tell. Harley TherapyTM Blog. https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/emotionally-repressed-signs.htm
*Ertel , A. (2022, April 8). How to identify & release repressed emotions. Talkspace. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/repressed-emotions/
*Jainish Patel, Prittesh Patel (2019) Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research – 1(3):16-21. https://doi.org/10.14302/issn.2574-612X.ijpr-18-2564
*Kurth, F., Zsadanyi, S.E. & Luders, E. Reduced age-related gray matter loss in the subgenual cingulate cortex in long-term meditators. Brain Imaging and Behavior 15, 2824–2832 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-021-00578-6
*Primeaux, M. (2022, November 14). Signs you’re avoiding emotions. Healing House. https://www.dallashealinghouse.com/blog/2021/5/12/5-signs-youre-avoiding-emotions
*Raypole, C. (2020, March 31). Repressed emotions: Finding and releasing them. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/repressed-emotions#releasing-them