GET IT OFF YOUR CHEST
Those feelings you bottle up? Let ’em all out, for your health
As the latest research finds that bottling up your emotions can actually cause chronic diseases such as cancer, the stiff upper lip, that bastion of Britishness, may well be doing you more harm than good. So go on, get it all off your chest – it really is good to talk
Be honest – when was the last time you said ‘I’m fine’? Last week? Yesterday? Right before you started reading this? If you actually are fine, well then, that’s fine. But it’s quite possible you just said it. Don’t want to make a fuss, do you? Only here’s the thing: research suggests that doing exactly that – not making a fuss – could actually be harmful to your health. Turns out there’s something to be said for unpacking the true feelings you’ve crammed deep down inside, coiled tighter than Tom Hardy’s buns in Taboo. And for learning to express your emotions. ‘Most of us box up our feelings because we don’t want them to disrupt our day-to-day lives or open up a can of worms, but the science suggests it doesn’t work,’ says psychologist Dr Susan David. ‘They’re bound to come out at some point – in a less productive, less manageable way.’ A problem shared is a problem halved and all that, but it’s a challenge: 75% of Brits don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings*, and a poll conducted by Oxford’s Social Issues Research Centre found a worrying 19% of you can’t remember the last time you expressed your true emotions. Time to sound those alarm bells. BETTER OUT THAN IN ‘Learning to express your emotions, particularly negative feelings you tend to shy away from, can help you work out the causes behind those emotions, the factors feeding into them and how best to shift your perspective to one that’s more positive and better at coping,’ says Sarah Stein Lubrano of The School Of Life, a London-based organisation with a focus on teaching and developing emotional intelligence (EI). There’s no doubt that nurturing EI is a good thing, and experts agree that expressing a full breadth of emotions is a big part of that process. Plus, research shows repressing your emotions doesn’t just make for awkward silences and inner rage, but can actually take its toll on your physical health as well as your mental wellbeing. Given the number of studies that prove too much stress in the body leaves it more susceptible to chronic illness, it makes sense that storing emotional turmoil makes that health risk all the more real. Research* has revealed a direct link between physical health and emotion, with participants who could more efficiently regulate their feelings reporting better general health. The team behind the study suggested the secret lies in the amygdala, a group of neurons found deep within the brain, which acts as a pathway between emotional regulation and physical wellbeing – though the exact process isn’t yet known. Equally, German psychologists conducted research into the link between repressive coping ‘IT FEELS SCARY TO USE WORDS YOU’RE NOT USED TO’ mechanisms and the prevalence of particular diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma and diabetes. They found that those they deemed ‘repressive copers’ had a significantly higher risk of suffering from one of these diseases, especially cancer and high blood pressure. BREAK THE SILENCE So, why aren’t you all sharing already? There are many campaigns challenging mental health stigma and the take-up of talking therapies is increasing. Yet, while statistics from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy report that the number of people seeking therapy has increased from a fifth to a quarter in just four years, that stiff upper lip still exists.
‘Western culture discourages the sharing of negative emotion,’ says Dr David. Think about it: it’s a lot easier to talk about the heady early days of a relationship than the messy final ones, and far more comfortable to announce getting hired than getting fired. Levels of social awkwardness are likely to be highest in the workplace, where there’s a focus on appearing professional (read: devoid of emotion), though that’s not to say we’re any more loose-lipped in our personal relationships. Fear of rejection – you know, that gut-wrenching feeling that comes when you actually see someone you like on Tinder – causes you all too often to shut down to save face. Dr David Caruso, a psychologist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, US, says this hits your emotional health with a double whammy, as ‘to build good quality long-term interpersonal relationships requires a level of intimacy based on the ability to share how you’re feeling at that time’. IT’S GOOD TO TALK First things first – make sure you actually have a handle on what’s going on in your own head. Dr Caruso deems this self-awareness critical. ‘Expressing emotion has to begin with accurate judgement, otherwise your communication won’t be effective,’ he says. ‘How do you feel about the situation at hand? What do you want to get out of the conversation and for the other person to learn?’ Paying attention to physiological signals, such as clenched fists, holding back tears or even tension around the eyes, before you begin talking can help with this too. ‘Use these markers to help identify the emotions swirling around your body, then ask yourself what the possible causes might be.’ Practice may not make for a perfect expression of emotions, but it can definitely help. ‘It feels really scary to use words, or even body language, you’re not used to, but the more you do it, the less power these words and behaviours wield,’ explains Dr David. ‘Take phrases like “I feel…”, “it’s hard for me to say but…” or “I’m struggling with…” and say them out loud when you’re alone. Rehearsing specific conversations with yourself, or a trusted friend, before speaking to the recipient will ensure the words become just words, rather than freighted with emotion.’ And remember: it doesn’t always have to be negative feelings that you share. Really not a talker? According to Dr David, research suggests writing your emotions down can do you good, too. The secret is just to write without worrying about punctuation or sentence structure. Go wherever your mind takes you – then throw the paper away or delete the document. ‘It’s not about writing your memoirs, it’s about stepping out from your experience to gain perspective,’ says Dr David. So go on, get your self-expression on. Wear your heart on your sleeve. The rest of your body will thank you for it.