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Your body’s reaction to denied emotions

Your body’s reaction to denied emotions

Date: 17 January 2022 | By: christinadeias

It has long been argued that the body and mind are inherently linked. Most of us can recognise physical signs in our bodies and how we function (or don’t function) when we are triggered emotionally. We can feel sick when we’re nervous or worried, feel our heart pounding in our chest when frightened, we may shake or feel dizzy when anxious or we can feel tired or experience aches and pains when we are deeply sad. Our bodies react to what is going on in our minds.

Some argue that all these troublesome physical symptoms are indeed ‘just in our heads’. However, our mental health can have very serious effects on our physical health. Research has shown the link between coronary heart disease and depression, that depressed patients have an elevated risk of developing type two diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are strongly correlated with depression.

It has been suggested that it is not our feelings and emotions that are responsible for illness. Rather, it is the long-term reliance on self-defence against the expression of feelings and emotions (repression) that creates the tension needed for illness to thrive.

Repression of emotion is one of the most common ways humans regulate their feelings. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who repress their emotions additionally suppress their body’s immunity, causing them to be more vulnerable to many illnesses.

Gabor Maté, a physician, author and addiction expert, claims illness can be the body’s way of saying 'no' to what the mind cannot or will not acknowledge. In his book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, he uses scientific research and his own experience as a physician to show the impact of the mind-body link on health, and the position stress and a person’s individual emotional disposition play in a variety of common illnesses.

As a study into the impact of childhood sexual abuse shows “…time does not heal all wounds”. Repression and silent suffering can impact all areas of life including unexplained physical symptoms. This can be a vicious circle for those experiencing poor mental health, as the inability to discover why they are suffering physically adds to their psychological distress.

Just as repression can cause physical changes in the body, so can talking therapies. Many studies have demonstrated alterations in brain functioning, cortical blood flow and/or structural changes as a result of the introduction of talking therapies. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that neural imaging scans show how new firing patterns emerge in the brain when certain therapeutic instructions are given to a client. Nurturing these new firing patterns can challenge old, unhelpful firing patterns that have become the natural default for a client (such as overthinking about the same thing). Establishing new firing patterns in the brain with talking therapy interventions and helping them to become stronger can prevent a client from drifting back into old, unhelpful patterns in daily life. As Donald Hebb (the father of neuropsychology) said: “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

It would appear that the need for people to express their emotions is crucial to physical and mental health. There are a number of ways that individuals can do this, whether that be through confiding in a close friend or family member, or seeking impartial support from a counsellor or mental health professional.

When considering the mind-body link, we need to start asking ourselves: “Where is the pain really coming from?”