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Health Effects Of ‘Bottling Up’ Feelings Related To Trauma

‘Bottling Up’ Emotions:

It is often said that it is psychologically unhealthy to ‘bottle up’ (suppress) feelings connected to trauma, loss and grief. But what does the research tell us?

Bowlby’s Position :

Bowlby’s (1980) work on the effects of suppression (he mainly focused on the suppression of grief) of such feelings proposes that grief is a natural feeling and ‘bottling up.’ or suppressing, such feelings causes an important psychological process to become inhibited and that this, in turn, would lead to both psychological and physical ill-health.

Challenges To Bowlby’s Position :

However, Wortman and Silver (1989) assert that the empirical evidence supporting Bowlby’s view is weak (but see later research conducted by Chapman et al. in 2013)and that those who strictly adhere to Bowlby’s view may unhelpfully cause individuals who do not experience a period of grief (that they define as ‘intense distress’) to be labelled as ‘abnormal’.

Furthermore, Wortman and Silver (1989) go on to suggest that, partly as a consequence of Bowlby’s view, individuals may be expected to ‘work through’ their feelings of grief/distress, as opposed to ‘bottling them up’, denying or suppressing them. Then, after a relatively short period of time, they may be expected to have ‘resolved’ their feelings of loss, and, therefore, cease their period of grieving.

Such expectations, Wortman and Silver (1989) suggest, can be potentially damaging as they may imply that those who do not go through this (according to Bowlby) ‘natural’ process are, as alluded to above, in some way reacting to their loss ‘abnormally’ or ‘inappropriately’ which is neither a sensitive, nor effective. approach to therapeutic intervention.

Bonanno et al., (1995) also conducted research that contradicted Bowlby’s theory. They concluded from their research that those who exhibited mild to moderate emotional detachment during the grieving process actually recovered better in psychological terms when compared to those who expressed their distress more overtly.

Support For Bowlby’s Position – Empirical Data Relating To Cancer And Cardiovascular Disease :

However, in contrast to Bonanno’s (see above) findings, Chapman et al. (2013) conducted a study which found those who tended to suppress their emotions were 1.7 times more likely to die from cancer at any given time and 1.47 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease at any given time than those who did not.

Another study, piblished in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research and carried out by researchers from the University of Rochesrer and the Harvard School of Public Health also foung that bottling up one’s feelings was potentially detrimental to one’s physical health and may increase one’s risk of dying from cancer or hearr disease.

Ego Depletion Theory:

A further study, conducted at the University of Texas, found that suppressing emotions can increase the individual’s risk of behaving aggressively towards others; the researchers involved in the study pointed out that this finding is explicable in terms of the theory of the  ‘ego depletion effect’ (i.e. the idea that we only have limited mental resources to enable us to exert self-control so that ‘using a latge proportion of these resources up’ on one mental task leaves only a limited amount of these resources with which to address other mental tasks. In other words, we can, in effect, ‘run out of’ the mental resources required to exert self-control if these resources have been exhausted by other mental tasks (such as suppressing powerful emotions, according to ego depletion theory).




How To Express Your Emotions – click here.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)