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Salma had just turned 42 when her husband told her he had been having an affair. He said the affair was over and she had nothing to worry about because he loved her very much. When she picked up her 7-year-old daughter at school, Salma couldn’t stop thinking about what she had just heard. Anger started building up but she had to repress it. She didn’t want to show her emotion in front of her daughter. Later that night, she couldn’t fall asleep. Part of her wanted to beat up her husband for having had the affair. Another part of her thought that she should take him at his word and not worry.
Over the next few days, she used an enormous amount of energy to suppress her anger. To make things worse, at night, she had trouble falling asleep, had nightmares, and awakened too early. She became extremely tired and soon developed a cough. The cough worsened very quickly, and she was diagnosed with bronchitis. After a week on antibiotics, she was still coughing, so her primary care physician put her on another kind of antibiotics. Those didn’t work either. Three weeks later, she was still coughing. Eventually, her cough improved but then she developed a sore throat. Previously, Salma had always been strong and very healthy. What was happening to her?
How can repressed emotions trigger physical symptoms and even disease?
When we repress emotion, there is a battle between the part of us that wants to express the emotion and another part of us that doesn’t. This conflict takes so much energy that there is very little left for anything else. This inner battle undermines quality sleep, and then, when we need energy for everyday life, we become stressed out.
Stress triggers the secretion of two key hormones: Cortisol and Adrenaline. These hormones are supposed to prepare our body physically to deal with dangerous situations. This is a great if we are being physically attacked and have to defend ourselves or run away, but in everyday modern life, it can cause a lot of problems.
Cortisol depresses our immune system, making us more prone to infections and less able to repair damage. Adrenaline is hard on the heart and blood vessels, causing our heart to beat faster and raising our blood pressure. Ultimately, our natural stress reaction can lead to many of the symptoms we experience as we age.
Three common physical ailments linked repressed emotions
In my experience, the three most common physical ailments that middle-aged women suffer from are likely to stem from the stress caused by repressed emotion:
Chronic muscle and joint pain: When repressed emotions lead to stress, which results in the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, severe muscle tension and joint inflammation can result. Typically, this is treated with medications including anti-inflammatories and opioids, which can bring side effects ranging from stomach pain to addiction.
Chronic fatigue with or without depression: When most of our energy is spent on internal battles between raw emotions wanting to explode and social learnings that teach us to control ourselves, there is very little energy left for normal life. This can lead to chronic fatigue that can result in depression – which, in turn, will aggravate chronic fatigue.
Frequent infections: Again, stress leads to an increase in cortisol production which results in a depressed immune system and a weaker ability to heal. The result can be frequent infections like sore throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and vaginal infections.
What steps can we take to address or prevent those symptoms?
We need to be able to express repressed emotions in a safe environment. Studies done by Mathew Lieberman and his colleagues at UCLA show that when we verbalize our emotions, our limbic system becomes less active. This means less adrenaline and cortisol production and fewer physical symptoms. In turn, this means a more balanced and healthier life.
One way to safely verbalize emotions is to confide in a friend or a therapist, the goal being to vent out strong emotions so that they are not kept inside with nowhere to go.
Some other ways to vent strong emotions include:
Write in your diary. Describe your emotions in written words.
Sing out your emotions. Make up lyrics that match your emotions
Play a musical instrument: Perform scores that reflect your emotions
Dance your emotions: Play a CD that you like and create a dance that matches your emotions.
Sports: If your emotion is anger, hitting a ball will likely work well. Try tennis, baseball, volleyball, table tennis, golf or whatever works for you. You can also join a gym.
Acting: Take an acting class and try to find a role that allows you to vent your real feelings.
Some people will prefer meditation, yoga, tai-chi and reiki. That is okay too.
What about you? How can you safely vent your emotions so that disease can be prevented?
Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD is the author, with Eric Haseltine, PhD, of THE LISTENING CURE: Healing Secrets of an Unconventional Doctor (SelectBooks). An Integrative and Holistic Medicine physician, Dr. Gilbert specializes in the combination of Western and Eastern Medicine, and has dedicated her life to treating and curing symptoms and illnesses that other physicians haven’t been able to address.
J Epidemiol Community Health. 2000 Mar; 54(3): 192–199.