How Repressing Emotions can Cause Disease

Repressing Emotions

The mind and the body are not two separate entities, but are inextricably linked. What happens to one affects the other, and vice versa. As modern medicine has become more compartmentalised, it has moved away from taking a more holistic perspective of treating the whole being. Over time, doctors and healers in different cultures have accepted that thoughts and emotions can play a role in our physical health.

Today, the discipline of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology recognises that there is, indeed, a link between the mind and the body, as these systems in the body are inter-connected. The brain, nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine glands form part of one system. In this way, stressful stimuli can produce changes in the hormonal response, immune system and nerves in the body. Through understanding these connections, it can be more easily understood how our beliefs, whether conscious or not, can contribute to not only physical diseases in the body, but also to experiencing sexual dysfunction. Examples may be vaginismus, erectile dysfunction or a fear of intimacy.

Prolonged Stress can Weaken the Immune System

Stress is a healthy response that happens to an organism when it perceives some kind of threat, whether real or imagined. The response to stress leads to changes in the functioning of the nervous system, and results in changes on a visceral level in the body. This happens through the workings of the vagus nerve, which impacts on how the major organs in the body respond. Over time, repeated stress that is not fully dealt with by the organism can lead to a decrease in health. One way this happens is through weakening the immune system. When we feel fear, anger, frustration, grief and other so-called negative emotions, this can impact directly on the functioning of the immune system. Read how the healing benefits of erotic touch can help to regulate the nervous system.

What is Emotional Repression?

Emotional repression is the holding on the inside of those emotions which we do not want to show that we are feeling. This can be a conscious decision, or it may be unconscious. This pattern is often learnt in childhood. For example, if a child has been told off, punished or ignored for expressing her emotional needs, she may learn that it is safer not to express them. She may even start to pretend to herself that she ‘is fine’ and doesn’t have any needs that can be met by others. The child can learn to disconnect from any messages she may be feeling in her body that tell her otherwise. Therefore, cognitively believing that everything is ‘fine’, does not stop the body from having a stress response on a physiological level.

Another strategy for a child or an adult to deal with not having their emotional needs met is to shut down and withdraw from others. Although this may mean that they put themselves in less situations that can cause stress, it does not mean that they escape from feeling the physiological stress that is in their body, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Chronic Emotional Repression Can Cause Physical Harm

Chronic emotional repression, happening over many years, can harm the immune system, and consequently our health. This can happen when we are not able to say no to those experiences which we do not want to have. By not being able to have, clearly express, and uphold boundaries we can find ourselves in situations where our needs are either not met or ignored by others.

Repressing emotions plays a major role in the onset of disease. Although of course not the only factor, with genetics, diet, exercise levels, beliefs and the environment in which we live all playing a part in the mix. Autoimmune conditions are diseases in which the immune system mistakenly attacks a part of the body. Such character traits such as perfectionism, feelings of inadequacy, self-criticism and trying to please others, are  not a cause of autoimmune conditions by themselves. However, they have been shown to increase the likelihood of getting such diseases as rheumatoid disease. Unsatisfying relationships with one’s parents are one major theme with this set of diseases.

Some Studies Regarding Repressing Emotions

A number of studies have been done that show a link with repressing emotions and an adverse effect on health. These link the increased link of developing, and dying from, different types of cancer, heart disease and other diseases with both the inability to express emotions, and “blowing up” with emotion. In addition, a study by Dr Redford Williams of Duke University Medical School showed that “hostility, defined as an absence of trust in the basic goodness of others”, was a “strong predictor of myocardial infarction, as well as increased risk of death from cancer and other diseases”.

The Importance of Mindfulness in Bodywork

Mindfulness is an important aspect of tantric bodywork. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in the present moment. By staying mindful, we are able to notice some unconscious beliefs that may be creating real physiological stress and dysfunction in the body. By noticing them, we have a choice of challenging those that we do not wish to accept, and adapting different beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Mindfulness can greatly increase our ability to relax, as well as change some of our thinking and emotional patterns. Read more about the role of mindfulness in tantric massage therapy.

In sessions, clients are invited to become aware of the inner workings of their being. This includes picking up on thoughts, physical sensations and emotions that make up each individual’s inner landscape. The invitation is to simply observe with curiosity, rather than judge any of the material that may be there. Clients are able to become more mindful of any triggers in their environment, and what to do to lessen their intensity and frequency.

Turning Towards the Positive in Life

Finally, learning to turn away from the negative and towards the positive is an important part of this work. Once thoughts, beliefs, and sensations become more easily identifiable, any negative beliefs can be changed to more positive statements. Acceptance, forgiveness and love towards oneself and others can enhance our capacity to heal, whereas self-criticism can block it. Once we look at those aspects of ourselves we do not like, and embrace the shadow, we can start to integrate and heal all aspects of ourselves.

Mindfulness can help to reduce stress, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and addictions, whilst promoting relaxation and the connection to the innate healing capabilities of each organism. Any limiting beliefs that may be contributing to sexual dysfunction can also be identified.

Further Information Regarding Repressing Emotions

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When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté

Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mind-Body Unity: A New Vision for Mind-Body Science and Medicine by Henry Dreher