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Suppressing Emotions

Why Suppressing Emotions Doesn't Work

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Updated April 24, 2014

Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) will report that they spend a lot of time and energy suppressing emotions. Have you ever had a really intense thought or feeling that you just didn’t want to deal with? Did it feel like it would overwhelm you if you let it stay in your head? Did you try to just push it away or not think about it? This is called emotional suppression, and lots of research shows that not only is it ineffective in eliminating thoughts and feelings, but it may even worsen the situation.

Suppressing Emotions – A Definition

What exactly does “suppressing emotions” mean? Essentially, emotional suppression is a type of emotion regulation strategy -– these are strategies that we use to try to make uncomfortable thoughts and feelings more manageable. There are many different emotion regulation strategies, and some are more helpful than others. For example, some people turn to alcohol or drugs to get rid of painful emotions. While this may work as an emotion regulation strategy in the short term, it definitely has bad long-term consequences.

Suppressing emotions, or just trying to push emotional thoughts and feelings out of your mind, is an emotion regulation strategy many people use. And, when used from time to time, it doesn’t have dramatic negative consequences like drug or alcohol use. But, there is reason to believe that if you try to push emotions away all the time, emotional suppression could lead to problems.

The Consequences of Suppressing Emotions

Researchers have studied what happens when you try to push away thoughts and feelings for decades. A famous study on this topic was conducted by Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., and his colleagues. He examined what happened when one group of people was instructed to push away thoughts of a white bear (another group was allowed to think any thoughts, including thoughts about a white bear). He found that the group who had suppressed thoughts of a white bear actually ended up having more white bear thoughts than the group that had been allowed to thinking about anything.

Wegner called this the “rebound effect of thought suppression.” Essentially, if you try to push away a thought of some topic, you will end up having more thoughts about that topic. Many follow-up studies have been conducted that confirm Wegner’s original finding. And, studies have expanded on his finding, and shown that the same effect happens when you try to push away emotional thoughts, or when you try to push away the actual feelings.

The Rebound Effect of Suppressing Emotions – What This Means for You

So what does this research mean for you? Well, it means that if you frequently try to push away thoughts and feelings, you may be making more trouble for yourself. In fact, it is possible that this is setting up a vicious cycle: You have a painful emotion. You try to push it away. This leads to more painful emotions, which you try to push away, and so on.

Some researchers believe emotional suppression may, in part, be a reason that people with psychological conditions such as BPD, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with so many painful thoughts and emotions.

Reducing Emotional Suppression – Trying New Strategies for Emotion Regulation

The solution to the problem of suppressing emotion is to learn new, healthier ways to regulate your emotions. If you have lots of tricks you can use to regulate emotions, you are less likely to rely on suppressing emotions all the time.

For example, distracting yourself from an emotion by engaging in another activity may be a more effective way to regulate your emotions. If you add lots of new strategies like this, you will not need to use emotional suppression as much.

Need some ideas for new, healthier ways to regulate your emotions? This article below can give you some new strategies to try.

Sources:

Abramowitz JS, Tolin DF, Street GP. “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression: A Meta-Analysis of Controlled Studies.” Clinical Psychology Review. 21(5):683-703, 2001.

Gross JJ, Levenson RW. “Emotional Suppression: Physiology, Self-Report, and Expressive Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 64(6):970-986, 1993.

Levitt JT, Brown TA, Orsillo SM, Barlow DH. “The Effects of Acceptance Versus Suppression of Emotion on Subjective and Psychophysiological Response to Carbon Dioxide Challenge in Patients With Panic Disorder.” Behavior Therapy. 35(4):747-766, 2004.

Roemer L, Borkovec TD. “Effects of Suppressing Thoughts About Emotional Material.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 103(3):467-474, 1994.

Salters-Pedneault K, Tull MT, Roemer L. “The Role of Avoidance of Emotional Material in the Anxiety Disorders.” Applied and Preventive Psychology. 11(2):95-114, 2004.

Wegner DM, Schneider DJ, Carter SR, White TL. “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53(1):5-13, 1987.

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