How Repressed Feelings Harm Your Health + 7 Techniques for Releasing Emotions

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Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as someone who has lived through trauma like abuse, abandonment, or some kind of tragic accident. Yet the more we learn about the concept of “trauma,” the more scientists are beginning to understand that in early childhood, much more subtle events can cause trauma and affect your long-term chronic disease risk as well as your ability to heal symptoms in the short term. The craziest part is that we don’t even know about most of these traumas that have such a huge impact on our lives — or they’re buried so deep that our conscious minds can’t see how much they affect us. Thankfully, there are ways to pull them to the surface (as painful or uncomfortable as that may be), and then release them. Read on to learn how repressed feelings affect your health, proven techniques for releasing emotions, how to heal emotional trauma through EMDR trauma therapy, and more.

You can also listen to this guide as an episode of The WellBe Podcast.

How Repressed Feelings and Trauma Affect Your Health

Before we get too far into the health repercussions, it’s important to first define repressed feelings. Repressed feelings — which are sometimes referred to as trapped emotions or emotional blockages — are emotions that you unconsciously avoid. Someone might have repressed feelings for a number of different reasons, but it often has to do with the way they were taught to handle tough emotions when they were children. If a child is taught that it’s not okay to show negative feelings like anger, sadness, or fear, then they become conditioned to hide these emotions, even from themselves. They never learn to process and understand hard emotions, and so view them all as too overwhelming and scary to even acknowledge. 

Repressed emotions can also be the result of unprocessed trauma. Trauma refers to any extraordinarily distressful event, be it physical, emotional, or psychological. It’s defined by the intensity of the negative emotions it causes, not an objective assessment of a specific occurrence, and so it can encompass a wide range of different triggering events. Some examples of trauma include a serious accident or injury, a violent attack, childhood neglect, abuse, illness, the sudden death of a loved one, miscarriage, as well as many more examples that we may not think of as traditional “trauma,” such as a parents’ divorce or finding out your parent was having an affair. Trauma causes intense emotions that need to be processed shortly after the traumatic event. When these emotions aren’t processed, they stay in our unconscious mind as repressed feelings.

Note that repressed emotions are different from suppressed emotions, which are emotions that you actively decide to push down. For example, if your sister is triggering anger during a family get-together, you might choose to suppress that emotion and deal with it at a more appropriate time. Repressed feelings, on the other hand, never get dealt with because your conscious mind isn’t aware they are there anymore — but that doesn’t mean they go away. Rather, because they’re never processed, they remain in your mind and body and can make themselves known and wreak havoc in a number of different indirect ways. 

If you’re familiar with the strength of the mind-body connection (and if you’re not, be sure to read or watch our interview with Heal director Kelly Noonan Gores), then it should come as no surprise that repressed feelings and unprocessed trauma can have a major impact on your health. Some of the ways that might manifest include:

  • Decreased immune function. Repressed negative emotions have been shown to negatively affect the immune system, leading to more frequent infections and slower recovery from illness. 
  • Anxiety and depression. Trapped emotions can be a root cause of anxiety and depressive disorders. These mental health conditions also come with their own physical side effects, including muscle tension, digestive problems, insomnia, and more. 
  • Chronic illness. Childhood trauma has been shown to increase the likelihood that someone will have chronic health issues as adults. It’s been linked to many of the leading causes of death in American adults, including heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and liver disease, as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Migraines. Though the exact connection between the two is unclear, it’s thought that the muscle tension brought about by the stress of repressing emotions could be a contributing cause of migraines.
  • Amenorrhea. A woman’s menstrual cycle is intimately connected to her physical and psychological health, and the psychological burden of repressed feelings can lead to the loss of her period
  • Cardiovascular disease. Trapped anger specifically has been tied to heart issues like hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
  • Substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol can offer a quick way to numb emotions and keep difficult feelings at bay, leading to addiction and abuse for some people

Pushing away hard emotions isn’t something to be ashamed of. It can be a mode of survival, serving an important purpose during a difficult time. However, repressed feelings and unprocessed trauma can’t be ignored forever without them taking a toll on your mind, body, and relationships. Thankfully, emotional healing is completely possible with a bit of commitment and work.

Techniques for Releasing Emotions and Healing Trauma

Most of us are familiar with processing and releasing emotions in the moment or shortly thereafter: when something happens that makes you upset, you likely spend some time working it out in your mind, journal about it, talk it through with a loved one or therapist, or something else like that. But when we’re talking about releasing emotions or trauma that has been repressed for a long time (and you likely don’t even realize it is being repressed or is affecting you), the situation is different. These feelings are often completely inaccessible without some structured, professional support. The good news is that this support exists, and that there are in fact numerous different approaches to this kind of emotional healing:

  • Naming and processing emotions. This is the most broad of the emotional release strategies, but it’s also incredibly powerful. Depending on where you look, you’ll find slightly different specific step-by-step instructions for this technique, but the general process and goal remains the same. Essentially, you want to identify and name aloud the emotion you’re having, as well as where in your body you feel it (for example, “I feel anger, and it’s a tightness in my chest.”). Then, you release the emotion using breathwork, imagery, affirmations, or another technique. Deepak Chopra’s step-by-step guide is a good framework for getting started, though it’s highly recommended that you do this with a trained professional rather than alone.
  • Movement and exercise. Trauma and blocked emotions can throw off your body’s natural rhythm as well as overly activate your sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight system) at the expense of your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-repair system). Regular movement and exercise can help to reset your body, and has been shown to be an effective intervention for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 
  • Meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation techniques are another effective tool for calming down the sympathetic nervous system and quieting the chatter of the mind as well as overactivity of the body. Because emotional trauma and repressed emotions are stored in the body, having moments where the mind is quiet and you can fully inhabit your physical self can be very helpful for accessing deeply repressed feelings. Research has also shown that meditation increases feelings of well-being and improves emotional regulation, both of which can make it easier for a person to process difficult emotions. 
  • Chiropractic treatment. Chiropractic therapy involves stimulating and loosening areas in the body that have become tightened, stiffened, or locked up. This can be helpful for releasing trapped emotions in a number of ways. First, it simply helps to open up and release fascia and muscles where these repressed feelings may be stored. Secondly, because chiropractic works on the spinal cord, it directly affects the activity of the brain. Trauma can rewire the way our brain responds to stress, and so chiropractic treatment has the potential to undo this rewiring and restore healthy stress response. In fact, some researchers define PTSD as a brain injury rather than a psychiatric disorder, making chiropractic treatments an even more logical approach. 
  • Craniosacral therapy. Craniosacral therapy is a therapeutic approach that involves light touch from the cranium (brain) down to your sacrum (tailbone) and back up again, with the goal of removing toxins, bringing nutrients to the brain, and promoting well-being. Research has shown that it can get your body into a parasympathetic state and help people process trauma. Former Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini went into more detail on how craniosacral therapy works when he shared his remarkable recovery story with WellBe. 
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT, also known as tapping, can be particularly helpful for releasing emotions that have been buried deep down. It involves using gentle acupressure tapping motions along the main meridians (energy pathways) of the body, while also talking about and processing emotions aloud at the same time. The tapping motions are meant to disrupt your body’s stress response with calming signals, allowing the body and mind to release trauma and trapped feelings. You can learn more about EFT/tapping in our interview with Jessica Ortner.

Another powerful emotional healing tool that you may have heard of is EMDR trauma therapy. It’s a huge topic — and hugely effective — so we’re giving it its own section, below.

How EMDR Trauma Therapy Promotes Emotional Healing

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it’s an interactive therapy technique used to treat PTSD and help people process trauma. As the name suggests, EMDR trauma therapy involves guided eye movements, which are coupled with reliving a traumatic or triggering event for short intervals of time. The theory behind this technique is that the eye movements divert your attention, making it less upsetting to recall traumatic events so that you can work through them without a major stress response. Over time, EMDR trauma therapy is meant to lessen the impact of a traumatic event, so that eventually you can recall it on your own without re-experiencing any trauma.  

There’s strong evidence to suggest that this approach works. In terms of treating PTSD, one study found that EMDR trauma therapy helped 77% of people with PTSD or a psychotic disorder lessen their symptoms significantly, while another showed EMDR to be a more effective approach than exposure therapy (helping a person overcome fear or trauma by exposing them to the source of their fear or trauma), which has long been used as a go-to trauma treatment. EMDR therapy has also proved effective against depression, with one study finding that 68% of depressed patients who underwent EMDR therapy showed full remission after treatment. 

While the general theory behind EMDR is relatively simple, the practice itself is a bit more complicated. EMDR trauma therapy is an eight-phase treatment, with the phases continuing from session to session and repeating once one cycle has been completed. 

The 8 Phases of EMDR Trauma Therapy:

1. History-Taking Session. In this phase, the therapist will review the patient’s history, assess their readiness, and develop a treatment plan. The patient and therapist will also discuss specific targets for EMDR processing, which could be past traumatic events, current distressing situations, difficult emotions, or other related challenges.

2. Emotional Preparation. Here, the therapist makes sure that the patient has coping mechanisms to use if they experience emotional or psychological distress during treatment. These could be techniques such as deep breathing or visualization.

3-6. Treatment. In these phases, the therapist works through different targets with the patient. Each of these phases is identical in sequence: the patient focuses on a negative thought, memory, or image while the therapist instructs them to perform specific eye movements. The therapist may also instruct them to do taps or other movements mixed in. After, the patient lets their mind go blank and notices any spontaneous thoughts or feelings they are having. At this point, the therapist will decide whether to process the same emotional target again, or to move on.

7. Log-keeping. The seventh phase occurs between therapy sessions, with the patient keeping a log throughout the week. In the log, they document any relevant emotions or situations that arise, and make an effort to use their coping skills if distressing or traumatic emotions arise. 

8: Evaluation. This phase begins the subsequent session, and it involves evaluating the progress made so far, including anything that came up throughout the week and any concerns about things coming up in the future. From here, the therapist and patient move on to phase 2 again, either identifying new targets to process or revisiting targets from the previous session.

There isn’t a finite length of time that a person will need to undergo EMDR trauma therapy. Rather, patients and their therapist keep an open dialogue about how progress is going, and mutually decide when they’ve adequately processed their feelings and are ready to stop therapy.

The WellBe Takeaway on Releasing Trauma and Trapped Emotions

Trapped emotions, whether they come from repressed feelings or unprocessed trauma, are serious things that need to be dealt with. However, many people never take on the task because it feels so overwhelming. But with a bit of knowledge about different techniques for releasing emotions, it’s possible for everyone to let go of their trapped feelings and find emotional healing. Here’s what to know:

  • Repressed feelings (or trapped emotions, or emotional blockages), are emotions that are unconsciously buried and never dealt with. People could have repressed feelings because of the way they were taught to handle emotions as children, or the repressed feelings could come from unprocessed trauma. These differ from suppressed emotions, which are feelings that we actively push away and eventually deal with at a later time.
  • Both repressed feelings and unprocessed trauma can have a negative impact on your physical health. They’ve been associated with decreased immune function, anxiety and depression, chronic illness, migraines, amenorrhea, cardiovascular disease, and substance abuse. They can also impact your body’s ability to heal chronic symptoms or diseases.
  • There are a number of different approaches for processing trauma and releasing trapped emotions. Some of the most popular include: physical exercise, meditation and mindfulness, chiropractic treatment, craniosacral therapy, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as tapping).
  • One particular effective method for processing trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). EMDR trauma therapy has shown to be particularly effective at helping heal symptoms of PTSD, as well as depression. It involves working with a therapist to revisit traumatic memories or difficult feelings while the therapist instructs the patient to make specific eye movements.  

Have you ever used any of the above techniques to release trauma or repressed emotions? Share your experience in the comments below!

You can also listen to this guide as an episode of The WellBe Podcast.



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