The Dangers of Holding in Your Emotions

If you’ve spent years trying to repress painful emotions, you’re not doing your health any favors.

Emotions, however uncomfortable, "are an important part of the human experience and they facilitate communication to others and sometimes ourselves about our needs and wishes," says Mayer Bellehsen, Ph.D, director of the Feinberg Division of the Unified Behavioral Health Center in Bay Shore, NY. And ignoring, repressing, or avoiding these emotions is linked with both physical and mental illnesses.

The Stress of Silence

"Holding things in can cause a constant state of elevated stress hormones that the body is not meant to sustain for long periods of time," says Lisa Rene Reynolds, PhD, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy graduate programs at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, and the author of Parenting Through Divorce: Helping Your Kids Thrive During and After the Split.

Constantly elevated stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol "can weaken your immune system and bring on headaches, cold sores, and flare ups of preexisting conditions such as backaches and fibromyalgia," a chronic condition characterized by pain and fatigue, Reynolds adds.

Keeping your emotions at bay can cause an individual to lack self-worth and to be anxious and depressed, which can foster physical illness, agrees Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California. "The stress of repressed emotions can cause tension in particular parts of the body, causing pain there," she says.

Moreover, "Emotional eating, as a result of stress, can lead to a host of physical ailments, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease," Tessina adds.

Additionally, "Sometimes avoidance of emotions is part of a psychiatric condition," Bellehsen adds. Conditions characterized by avoidance of emotions include anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.

5 Ways You Can Cope

Dealing with repressed emotions is difficult. "It can be a very hard pattern to break," Reynolds admits. "Repressed emotions can find deeply entrenched cozy places to fester and live. But with good effort and adherence to what works for you, you can begin to feel happier and at peace."

While letting go of old grudges and things you can't change or control is hard, it helps to engage in activities that remind you of purpose and that give you happiness, she explains.

Here are a few ways to deal with some of those unresolved emotions:

1. Know Your ABCs

Simon Rego, Psy.D, ABPP, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, recommends this technique. Rego encourages people to maintain a three column or ABC chart, in which they note Activating Events ("A"), their Beliefs About These Events ("B"), and the Emotional and Behavioral Consequences ("C") stemming from their beliefs about the activating events. "This helps people not only to become more aware of their emotions, but also the critical role that thoughts and beliefs play in generating them," Rego says. "This then sets the stage for expressing them and managing them better." The activating event is the "trigger," the event or situation that activates how we think and feel about something, he explains.

2. Practice Healthy Habits

Practice yoga, learn to meditate, cuddle with pets, and keep a journal. "Journaling is very helpful, as is listing goals and keeping inspirational quotes posted in places you'll see them daily," Reynolds says.

3. Read

Look for works that resonate with you, be it poetry, inspirational, self-help, or memoir, says Reynolds.

4. Learn to Be Resilient

Start by forming good relationships with close family members, friends, and others. If you can accept the help of those who care about you, this can strengthen your resilience, the ability to deal with and recover from adversity. Joining and participating in a faith-based organization, civic group, or another local group that offers social support can also help build resilience.

5. Get Counseling

This can be helpful if you don’t feel equipped to manage certain emotions on your own. An emotion like grief—say, grief over the death of a loved one—can persist and lead to ongoing sadness, Bellehsen says, adding: "Sharing this grief and obtaining the support of a counselor can help in its resolution."

Tessina, the author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, which takes readers through the step-by-step healing process, feels that counseling with someone you trust is key. "Although it can be daunting to open up the repressed feelings, and the early scenes that created them, those psychic wounds can be healed, and the result is a much happier life, better relationships, and better sense of self," she says.

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D, LMFT, reviewed this article.


Bellehsen, Mayer. Email interview on January 25, 2016.

Reynolds, Lisa Rene, PhD.. Email interview on January 28, 2016.

Tessina, Tina B. Email interview on January 28, 2016.

Simon Rego, Psy.D, ABPP. Email interview on March 2, 2016.

Mayo Clinic Staff. "Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk." Mayo Clinic. July 11,2013.

"The Road to Resilience." American Psychological Association. Last accessed January 28, 2016.