Having been born and raised in England, I am intimately familiar with the habit of keeping a "stiff upper lip." As a cultural phenomenon, this means that emotions -- positive or negative -- are not readily expressed, at least not in public. Some may take this as good manners, others as signs of rigidity and unnatural restraint. In any case, researchers warn that perpetual emotional suppression is nothing benign but can lead to potentially serious mental and physical health problems and even premature death.
One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer. This confirms earlier studies that have linked negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression to the development of heart disease.
The health risks increase, it seems, when people have no way of expressing or acting on their feelings, the researchers say. We know that stress can build up and become chronic when our "natural" fight-or-flight responses meant to help us survive in conflict situations are frustrated. Similarly detrimental effects may occur when negative emotions remain unexpressed.
Some experts suggest that acknowledging emotions, especially distressing ones, and airing them from time to time is an important component of mental health.
In our culture, people quickly feel guilty or ashamed when they appear as being overly negative or critical, says Tori Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and writer based in Atlanta. We are biased toward positive thinking, which is worth cultivating, but problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time, she says.
"Anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being."
But how about positive emotions? Can they make us healthier? Yes, especially if we allow ourselves to express them, a separate study from Harvard found.
Individuals with great emotional vitality have a much lower risk of developing heart disease compared to the less emotionally expressive, according to Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor of human health and development at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report. There are mechanisms at play we don't fully understand yet, she says, but there is evidence that positive emotions can provide some sort of "restorative biology."
Obviously, neither positive nor negative feelings arise in a vacuum. An essential part of emotional well-being is our ability to create and maintain a conducive environment where our various needs are satisfied and our bodies, minds and souls are nourished. Not all, but a great deal of that is within our control and can benefit from our care. That in itself should give us cause to feel better.
8 Reasons You're Still Mad
Anyone who has lived past the age of 4 is well acquainted with the idea that Life Is Not Fair. And yet, when something annoying/sad/frustrating and, yes, completely unfair happens, inevitably someone says, “Oh, well, who says life is fair?” And you realize, as a fireball stokes in your chest, that it is not the unfairness of life but the random commentary that is eating at your soul. It’s just so unhelpful, this kind of toothless insight that is meant to allay the speaker’s discomfort rather than your own. We'd tell you it's just not fair, but...
When you call the cable company about the Internet connection that isn't working, customer service encourages you to solve the problem... by going online. Your new steak knife comes sealed in a blister pack that’s impossible to open without said steak knife. Why does everything have to be so complicated? It is called, in scientific circles, The Soda Bottle Law of the Universe: To make eating at your desk more tolerable, you get a fancy soda, and only once you’ve settled in with your lunch do you realize that it requires a bottle opener, as if it were a boutique beer. Your disproportionate surge of rage is completely understandable. Who keeps a bottle opener at her office? Who does that soda think it is?
Know this: There is a page on Facebook for "Saying 'I'm fine when I'm really not." It has more than 22,000 likes. You're not the only one.
So you’re finally taking the very-good-but-hard-to-follow advice to delegate responsibility instead of doing everything yourself while grumbling about how you have to do everything all the time. You ask an eager intern to create a slide for your upcoming presentation -- sure, it only saves you an hour, but you get to put it out of your mind. Done! Except the night before the presentation, you realize she never sent it to you and is nowhere to be found, so you still have to spend an hour on it, and now you have to blow off the friend you were going to see to get it done on time. Resume grumbling about how you have to do everything all the time.
Dear Mom, One of our greatest desires, as humans, is to be known. So it stings when, though I've refused since I was 3 years old, you still think you can convince me to wear pastels. Do you not understand that I didn't inherit your milky complexion, which glows in seafoam? Are you blind to how putrid I look in puce? Well, thanks anyway for the birthday present. Sigh. Love, Your Daughter, Whose Wardrobe Is and Forever Shall Be 90 Percent Earth Tones
I know someone who works full time, has a small baby, and had her beloved babysitter up and quit, with nary an explanation. It’s been months, but she still seems to be shaken up by the experience. And why not? It's unsettling when people disappear without giving a reason -- the cleaning lady, the math tutor, the every-Friday-for-two-months date. Sure, we all know everyone has a complicated life. And yet someone you trusted chose something else over you. It stings. Of course it does. But you can survive it.
Does anyone really know how dry cleaning works? The answer is no -- it’s just one of those mysteries of life. Or, at least, it is to me. So even though there is a small voice in my head whispering, "That’s wine AND chocolate AND blood on that camel-hair blazer, and nothing in the world is going to get that out," I believe the dry cleaner can fix it. And, $20 later...no. No, the dry cleaner can not perform magic. And I didn’t listen to my wise inner voice, and there goes my $20. Every. Time.
You slink into the kitchen in the morning, and you're tired but it’s time to be up, and you’re heavy with dread for the day ahead, and there is no coffee. You hold the empty canister in your hand for a moment before hurling it against the wall, startling the dog and also yourself. May I suggest something and then immediately duck for cover? Could it be that you are not actually mad about the lack of that precious brown dust? Could it be that you are storing a general anger -- at being overtired, at your too-busy life, at the irritating meeting you’re headed to -- in your fingertips? A thought: Apologize to the coffee canister (yes, it feels silly), and then apologize to the dog, and then apologize to yourself. And then: a big box of Dunkin Donuts coffee to share at the meeting. Peace and goodwill to all.
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