Expressive Suppression Affects Your Health and Mine
July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
It’s stressful, isn’t it, when we hold back expressing how we really feel about an emotionally-charged topic while socially engaged with someone. That’s because expressing emotion is instinctive to our nature, helping us connect, bond, and relate to one another. In fact, emotional expression is the basis of social harmony and since we have become so “plugged in” via the media to current events, global concerns, or to someone’s personal circumstances, we have plenty of opportunities to share emotional content with friends and strangers alike. But what happens when a topic or the person we are speaking with causes strong negative emotions like sadness, fear, tension, embarrassment, anger, or disgust to come up and we don’t feel free to express our feelings? It turns out that there’s a price to pay for expressive suppression that can impact us socially and medically.
The Social Consequences of Expressive Suppression
Social engagement has often been likened to a dance because it is a co-created process of mutual regulation involving rhythm, pacing, leading, and following, and e-motion is the music we all dance to. If one of the “dance” partners falls out of step, an effort is usually made to get back in step. However, what if during a conversation, one partner refuses to engage emotionally with their conversation partner by tempering his or her true feelings on a matter, hiding a preference, or by avoiding a contentious topic? Granted, self-restraint definitely has its place and may help defuse a tense situation and keep it from escalating, or sometimes, we simply need to distance ourselves from that person. However, if we chronically and inflexibly block the expression of our emotions, there will be social consequences. Expressive suppression has been found to disrupt conversation and impede the development and maintenance of a relationship which can lead to social isolation. Not a good thing! Conversely, depending upon the context, if we choose to express strong negative emotions in a responsible way, it can help lessen the intensity of the feelings, quell intrusive thoughts, clarify a matter, and even help us to forge a deeper connection—a Win-Win!
The Health Consequences of Expressive Suppression
In her research on expressive suppression, Emily A. Butler and colleagues discovered that the way we regulate our emotion reactions can impact our psychological and physiological health and the health of those we interact with. She found that expressive suppression not only causes our blood pressure to rise, it also raises the blood pressure of the person we are conversing with, whether they are a friend or a stranger. This finding led Butler et al. to conclude that expressive suppressive is “the second-hand smoke of emotion regulation” because it links to depression and anxiety disorders, weakens social bonds, and can eventually lead to coronary heart disease through the chronic elevation of blood pressure.” So in a real sense, we do hold each others hearts in our hands.
Reference: The Social Consequences of Expressive Suppression by Emily A. Butler et al., Emotion (2003) Vol. 3. No. 1. 48-67
Your comments are always welcome as they truly enrich the ongoing blog conversations. We’ve all experienced situations where strong negative feelings have come up during a conversation. Would you care to share your experience?
Tagged: anxiety, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, emotion regulation, expressive suppression, Health, high blood pressure, Maureena Bivins PhD, social engagement, social harmony, social interaction, social isolation