I stood by my father’s hospital bed as my mother and siblings cried. My father was unconscious – tubes and hospital things sticking out of him, as well as stains from tape and chemicals that cleaned his skin. Seeing a loved one helpless makes you feel small and vulnerable, exposed and raw. But not me—I felt nothing. As firstborn, I accepted the mantle of leader, and the leader must stay cool under pressure. The emotions were there; they were just bottled up, shoved down and turned off. What might that have done to me physically?
Missing out on feel-good hormones
In a previous article, we talked about how oxytocin reduces stress, and how an embrace of at least 20 seconds also imprints trust and safety between the people hugging. The higher the emotional state, the greater the benefit. If you are bottling your emotions, you are not open enough to receiving these benefits or conveying them. I could have processed my feelings by embracing them, and my family, in a shared moment of vulnerability.
Suppressing emotions doesn’t make them go away, they just go unexpressed. It’s no surprise then that the stress and anxiety these emotions cause end up upsetting our digestion. It’s known that many of nerve pathways in the digestive tract are similar to the ones in the brain that process fear and other emotions. It’s why we get ‘butterflies’ when we’re nervous or get nauseated when confronted with shocking news. Expressing and processing emotion is the healthy way of dealing with bad news. But if you swallow it, your stomach pays for it.
Swallowing emotions is usually followed by swallowing food. The emotions are yucky so we seek comfort by binging on comfort foods. And this is something that doesn’t just happen once. We can quickly become trained to eat when our emotions let loose because comfort eating makes happy hormones. While this may be natural, it isn’t healthy.
Serious health consequences/heart problems
Negative emotions make stress hormones. Positive emotions make happy hormones. You can kind of overdose on all this stress and anxiety. Your hormones, your infection fighting system and your cardiovascular system (which is super sensitive to stress) may go out of balance. It’s nothing new to say that the more stress in your life, the more likely you are to have a heart attack. Don’t let that happen to you.
And what of those around me?
Did my stoicism give them relief? Turns out, no, it didn’t. Did it add to their stress? Maybe. Our loved ones can get tense when they see us suppressing our feelings rather than sharing them. And as cool as I felt, I’m certain that my body language, face and speech gave away more than I knew.