How Expressing Your Emotions—or Not—Affects Your Health

How Expressing Your Emotions—or Not—Affects Your Health in lineA little bird told me the other day that it might not be a bad time to talk about the impact of emotions on our health—particularly our choice to express or not express them. I’ve heard people around me share that they’re worn out lately—that emotions have imposed a toll regardless of how well they keep their own in check. It got me thinking. Increasingly, researchers uncover the remarkable imbrication of mental and physical well-being. How we nourish or neglect our physical selves affects how we feel psychologically. Likewise, the emotional terrain we traverse throughout a day, in turn, elicits its own physiological feedback. Yet in this culture, there’s a certain esteem for the stiff upper lip. We restrain ourselves for the sake of others—our perception of their comfort and/or of their opinion of us. But are we sacrificing something in doing so? When does the polite instinct to suppress our emotions benefit us, and when does it backfire?

It’s hard not to think of Grok in these instances, and this might offer one of the more entertaining hypothetical scenarios. In close-knit band society, idiosyncratic characters or strong personalities were likely tolerated if they didn’t kick up too much discord or impair the group’s ability to thrive. That said, loose cannons who chronically threw the group dynamic into chaos probably would have been a different story. They would have had the choice to assimilate (and simmer down) or find a better fit elsewhere (not likely). As a result, a certain emotional reserve would’ve paid off.

Yet, in all fairness, society was different then. There certainly were major stressors, but they were more episodic than chronic. The intimate structure and egalitarian ethos of band society offered a means for individuals to be heard and conflicts to be contained—and, when possible, resolved.

Today, our social networks are bigger (but less intimate), our work hours are more lengthy and our daily schedules are more structured. It could be argued we live with more choice but less powerthe same propensity for dispute, but more depersonalized means for settlement. Not to discount the many benefits of contemporary existence, but we often live with more stress and less support than our ancestors.

In the face of all this, maybe we should cut ourselves some slack. Feeling frustration in a day isn’t bad in itself, right?

As long as we don’t act on our emotions, we’re still in the good graces of society. Except that those emotions are still acting on us.

Let’s look at the whole picture.

In terms of expression, research suggests our risk for heart attack rises substantially (up to 8.5 times higher in the couple hours following an angry outburst). Experts cite the long-term risk as clearer and more substantiated. The more often subjects erupted in anger, the greater their risk of heart attack (more than a three-fold risk) and stroke (almost a five-fold risk) over time. (1, 2) Not surprisingly, the more risk factors a person has, the analysis shows, the greater the chance anger will send their health over the edge.

Most telling, perhaps, could be study of an interesting subset researchers call “repressors”people who employ repression as a regular coping mechanism rather than selective strategy. Assessments reveal that people who fit this category claim low or normal psychological perception of stress, but their bodies demonstrate substantial impact—at times stronger effects than those who report feeling stressed. This disconnect between physical reality and mental awareness potentially sets the board for more physical damage because these people’s recognition is so skewed or largely absent.

Multiple studies, for instance, show a correlation between repression and an increased risk for both cancer and cardiovascular disease. (1, 2) Subjects with higher anger and hostility measures, especially internalized anger expression, also have a greater risk for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Finally, for those of you who are partnered, a study of couples who stifle anger rather than express it indicates that those who hold their frustration in may be shortening their lifespan.

So, what’s the answer? Where do we go from here?

Should we express our negative emotions?

When is it helpful to vent? At what point is it a law of diminishing returns? And what do we do with the residual energy?

I’d argue there’s a more substantial issue here. As is usually the case in life, we have more choices than we imagine. Examining how we relate to our emotions cracks open the subject in far more interesting ways than simply asking “to express or not to express.”

And let me say this first. Sharing an emotion means something different than expressing it. When we intentionally share an emotion, we’re offering it to another person. How productive we are has everything to do with the way we communicate and the extent to which we take responsibility for our own feelings. (Hint: no one “makes” us feel a certain way.)

Are we managing our lives when we share how we feel, or are we merely shedding our emotional debris?

Expressing our emotions, however, can broaden the possibilities immensely (and may in some cases be the better bet). The intent to express (as opposed to share) our emotions suggests we’re looking for relief. Sometimes there is no solution to a particular situation, or expressing our emotion won’t be the catalyst that gets us there anyway.

It’s better in these cases to indulge the emotion in some therapeutic writing to experience a productive outlet or attempt some intensive exercise to burn off the excessive energy and flood the system with some feel-good inputs.

Alternatively, as I hinted at earlier, we can work with our relationship to our emotions. We can redefine our association with the feelings that threaten to overwhelm us and/or get us into hot water.

Minimizing the direct impact of our lesser angels isn’t about emotional bypassing, pretending to float above the natural but inconvenient and often unproductive responses we have to life with all its warts.

Mindfulness training, for example, teaches us to observe our emotions without identifying with them. It’s the difference between being with anger rather than simply being angry. We observe anger in our thoughts and in our body’s responses, but we situate ourselves as witness to those emotions rather than their captive source.

In doing so, we can own our responsibility for the psychological energy we steep ourselves in during any given hour and simultaneously loosen the choke hold it has on us. We learn to lightly hold our innate primordial volatility while also not taking it so darned seriously.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have you changed the way you express yourself as a result of prioritizing health and well-being? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “How Expressing Your Emotions—or Not—Affects Your Health”

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful essay Mark. It occurs to me I given other people / current events the power to increase my risk for a heart attack or stroke. Being mindful of this and expressing my righteous (in my mind at least LOL) anger in a constructive way could mitigate this danger to my health and produce some positive outcomes (i.e. cast your vote, drive people to the polls, etc.)

    1. The thing is, short of outright physical violence (which can result in jail time), nobody can control what other people think, do, or say. We can only control our own reaction to it. Short-tempered people don’t seem to realize that by venting their displeasure at someone else, they are mainly hurting their own health.

      1. And if you are somewhat of an Empathic type of person, you get to share that negative energy they just dumped into your energy field. BLERG!!!! I just need to remember the phrase “return to sender” and not allow it to stay with me.

      2. Not true….. manipulative people control others all the time using emotional pressure. Not that it’s always effective and It’s a disgusting form of behaviour, but people do it.

        1. Peter, people can be controlled only if they allow it to happen. Again, it’s about how one chooses to react to manipulative behavior.

  2. Yes, while its true that “no one else can ‘make’ us feel a certain way”, and mindfulness is really the only thing that ultimately works, doing such a pro-active thing is often easier talked about than done.

    1. It’s sounds easy, but I find mindfulness very hard to implement, Looking for suggestions

  3. Offhand I can think of a loose-canon political candidate who has trouble keeping his foot out of his mouth (which is another way of saying he vents inappropriately). Interestingly, he often tells it like it is, but his tendency to be politically incorrect could hurt him in the long run.

  4. One of the unfortunate residues of the 70’s is the idea that you should just let it out (a la primal screaming). Parents still ask about the use of punching bags or allowing their kids to melt down as if it were always cathartic, and I have to tell them that behaviorally tying anger to an aggressive act is not how you want to link neurons. Don’t repress everything, but certainly don’t blow out all the time.

    Read something recently that showed a link between an episode or anger/exercise after and heart attack. Which makes sense. Inflammation from the anger, then increased blood pressure from working out = potential heart attack.

  5. Yes, mindfulness is the intelligent way to deal with emotions, versus letting them take control or trying to blindly block them. It takes time and effort, but really, is there any other effective way?

    Through the consistent practice of meditation, I have become a calmer person. I have reduced self-destructive habits. I have even discovered previously hidden emotions that gave me greater insights to myself. (That last bit might be especially scary to people who suppress and fear their feelings, but so far these revelations have been wonderful, not frightening.)

    My point in regards to this article, is that mindfulness is a great way to express and explore your emotions. Even if no one else is around or willing to listen, you can have a productive internal conversation.

    1. Well said, Corinna. Even just becoming more aware of emotions, without necessarily acting on them, has become helpful through the practice of mindfulness. I have found this applies especially to parenting my 4-year-old son. Lots of emotions can bubble up when parenting and some are not at all helpful to act on or express, but just recognizing them can get me through some challenging spots.

  6. Mark, from my teens through my late twenties I was the definition of a repressor. I was unaware and completely out of touch with my feelings. Years of unchecked emotions finally converged on me in the form of a bottoming out. It was basically a nervous breakdown.

    I thankfully sought out therapy while in crisis mode. I learned a bunch of life skills, grew up, and began to value sharing and expressing my emotions with my close circle. I have had to learn a bit about tact and my approach at times in sharing, particularly with my wife, but it has been an incredibly powerful process to learn to express, unburden, and also simply let go when needed. Meditation has also been a welcomed tool, in addition to the few bouts of therapy.

    I do not think people need to wait for a bottoming out, though, to make positive changes in regards to expressing themselves and sharing emotions. Society seems to be moving towards a place of more openness in regards to discussing mental well-being. Thoughtful pieces like your article here will also hopefully further that move towards openness.

    Truly enjoyed this article. Thanks for posting.

  7. The Stoics…Mark did a great post(s) on the Stoic philosophy awhile back and this is a good complement. Reminds me of Ryan Holiday’s books…The Obstacle is The Way…Marcus Aurelius might have enjoyed MDA!

  8. There is so much pop-culture surrounding emotions these days that simply isn’t helpful. Mark does well to differentiate between discussing/sharing emotions, and “expressing” them.

    There was a time when well-meaning idiots kept telling me that I should “express” anger and depression, then got offended when I was angry and depressed. They asked for it, and it didn’t help me, either.

    I believe that how men and women deal with emotional issues is different, and CONTEXT is absolutely vital.

    Don’t tell men to gush about their feelings to every acquaintance. Doing so is not helpful. It does not help solve the problems and only serves to increase both frustration (because it doesn’t work) and that inward focus that is one of the drivers of depression. Men can and do share emotions, but it typically WORKS done privately with a very small, very trusted group of men. The classic situation is late in the evening over a few post-dinner drinks after a hard day working/playing together.

    It is worth reading Lt.Col Dave Grossman on debriefing military veterans with PTSD. Just demanding that people “talk about it” is counter-productive.

  9. I believe this is something I need to focus on more than anything else. Stress really does kill and when I’m stressed I tend to reach for unhealthy foods and not feel like taking the time to cook. I’m stressed out a lot being almost 9 months pregnant and watching after and cooking for my toddler. More stress than I have ever experienced before and I don’t express it well. Some say crying is good but I cry a lot and sometimes it’s all I need, but other times it’s not enough and I still feel stressed. I enjoyed this article. I will definitely work on being more mindful of my feelings. Of course my frustrations are all relating to not being in control (i.e. want to stop being pregnant, can’t get my toddler to stay out of the kitchen, etc etc). I’m going to try and think about letting go/detaching from those urges/emotions, but in the moment it is really hard to think, “Oh, it’s okay, I don’t need to identify with that stress, my toddler isn’t going to get into the knives and hurt himself and I totally have the strength to pick him up and move him out of the kitchen without hearing him scream and tantrum on the floor, giving me even more stress.” Those shrill cries tear at my soul, and this pregnant belly makes it really hard to pick up and move a (very strong) 27lb almost 3 ft. tall 20 month old. -sigh- maybe just needed to complain a little somewhere.
    Thank you for bringing this topic up. It’s really important in today’s world.

  10. I seem to recall reading a long time ago that women’s tendency to cry more than men made them healthier and gave them an edge to living longer than men. Supposedly the tears would somehow eliminate certain detrimental hormones (it’s been so long since I read this that I’m not sure I’m explaining it correctly). In any case, crying was identified as a healthier response to stress than either lashing out in anger or suppressing it, as men are more likely to do.

    1. It’s a nice theory, but from personal experience, I can tell you that it doesn’t work.

      We won’t approach better solutions while we simply assume that men and women are the same emotionally, and that they key to helping men is to make them more like women.

      We have no trouble – on this page – accepting the proposition that men and women are physiologically different. Modern psychology has discarded the theory that culture is responsible for the difference emotionally.

  11. Religious people – and in particular Christians – tend to live longer than the general population. They may also be characterized by having a generally better diet, smoke less, drink less, eat less junk food. Those with poor diets often are more angry etc, and therefor they may have gotten a heart attack anyway, so I think these studies can be misleading. If Christians live longer than Jews or Muslims, then maybe there´s something to forgiving and turning the other cheek, as well as giving to others – of one´s time, resources, money, – letting go of one´s ego and pride, focus on the other instead.

    1. You’re confusing theology with sociology and economics of various cultures and countries. While interesting to think about, it makes it impossible to actually draw any reasonable conclusions.

      1. Andrea….

        Theology DOES affect the way that people think, live, eat, do business, socialise and react to situations.

        It may be difficult to draw specific conclusions at a level that we’d like, but it’s very reasonable to point out some obvious differences.

    2. Because followers of Judaism and Islam are not forgiving or giving to others?!? Really Jakob … come on man, are you serious?

      1. You are right, I was a unfair/prejudiced. But if Christian way of life is understood as following the teachings of Jesus, I think it´s more strongly focused on charity, love and forgiveness – i.e. the idea of giving away all one´s money, love one´s enemies, turning the other cheek and so on. In practice it may be less so. Obviosuly many Jews or Muslims give much to charity and are forgiving. And according to the World Giving index, Myanmar was on the top of the list in 2015 and 2014. This is a Buddhist country. US was #2. Based on the frequency of:
        – helping a stranger, or someone they didn´t know who needed help?, Donated money to charity?, Volunteered time to an organisation?

  12. This reminds me of a book I read years ago “Feelings buried alive never die”. It really helped me to release people to their own journeys and to stop trying to “help” people who really just need to go on their way.

    It also show the connection between our health and our thoughts/feelings.

  13. I just noticed the picture on top of this page shows Mark playing the piano. I also play piano sometimes. Mark, does playing music help you alter your emotional state for the better? That seems like a good strategy, along with prayer, meditation, exercise, eating well etc.

  14. Great article. Someone once told me that there was a correlation between repressive personalities and the diagnosis of multiple slerosis? I’ve often wondered if there was any merit to this information?