Suppressing emotions, or just trying to push emotional thoughts and feelings out of your mind, is an emotion regulation strategy many people use. This is sometimes a really effective tool, especially when the problem can’t be immediately solved or you’re attending to more pressing matters. Moreover, we are all familiar with the momentary relief that avoidance can provide. If the thought of speaking up upsets me, then I can make myself feel better by deciding not to speak. Sure, avoidance is an effective solution in the short term. Long term, however, it becomes a bigger problem than whatever was being avoided in the first place.
Attempts at avoiding negative thoughts or emotions are usually ineffective. A famous 1987 study discovered that there is a rebound effect with thought suppression. Basically, if you try to push away a thought on a specific topic, you’ll actually end up having more thoughts about that topic. This same effect happens when you try to block emotions. Telling yourself that a certain emotion is intolerable or dangerous traps you in constant vigilance regarding the very thing you’re trying to avoid. You become hypervigilant about any possibility of this feeling arising. The fear of the impending negative experience becomes a negative experience in itself. Does this sound exhausting to anyone else?
Instead of suppressing an emotion, try replacing it with another by changing your facial and body expressions. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that there is such a strong connection between our face, body, and mind that we can change our emotions simply by changing our facial expressions, our posture, how we hold our hands, and the tenseness of our muscles. For example, if we are very afraid or anxious (like when walking up to the podium to give a speech or waiting for medical test results), our posture may be curled inward, with hands held firmly together and clenched teeth. Here, what would it be like to loosen our tongue from the roof of our mouth, straighten our spine, roll our shoulders back, drop our arms, and place our relaxed hands palms-up on our thighs? You may notice the fear or nervousness subside and perhaps even be replaced with calmness. This exercise is called Willing Hands, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill that encourages acceptance of our current emotions with our body. By changing our posture, we are changing our emotional experience.
-Christine Warren, PsyD