Series: Part 1 of 4 Emotional Suppression & Techniques to Manage It

Emotions are essential in human experiences. However, when our emotions become dysfunctional, they interfere with our adaptability and affect our psychological and physical well-being. So, successful emotion regulation is vital for our mental health. Difficulties in adaptive emotion regulation are associated with different mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Emotional regulation is one of the distinctive features of our emotional intelligence (EQ).  We normally use various strategies to regulate emotions, and one of these strategies is emotional suppression.

Emotional suppression is a type of emotion regulation strategy that we use to make unpleasant thoughts and feelings more manageable. In other words, when we feel overwhelmed by an intense thought or feeling that we cannot handle at the moment, we try to push it out of our mind.

However, research shows that this emotion regulation strategy may be counterproductive. When used sporadically, emotion suppression doesn’t have significant negative outcomes. However, this strategy is usually ineffective in eliminating disturbing thoughts and feelings. The research has shown that trying to push away emotional thoughts, people actually end up having more of those thoughts and feelings. In fact, when used regularly, emotional suppression may even worsen the situation – pushing emotions away all the time can lead to serious issues afterward.

Some scientists believe that emotional suppression is the possible reason why people with mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) struggle with countless painful thoughts and feelings.

Distraction

Distraction is a way of coping with emotions that happens when we try to draw attention away from a negative aspect of a situation and focus our attention to neutral or positive aspects. For example, we shift our attention when we try to concentrate on positive thoughts.

Actually, distraction is anything we do to temporarily remove our attention from an intense emotion. Distracting ourselves from a strong emotion may give the emotion some time to lessen in intensity, making it easier to cope with.

Distraction is important because it can keep us safe at the moment by preventing harmful behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse. Nevertheless, distraction is effective only when applied temporarily – once the intensity of the emotion has decreased we should try to use another skill to manage the emotion, such as mindful meditation.

Different studies showed that distraction may be effective emotion regulation strategy when emotional stimuli are highly intense. In addition, distraction seems to be helpful in regulating emotions with depression and anxiety-related disorders. Moreover, this emotion regulation mechanism showed results in emotions related to PTSD.

Namely, the amygdala (the brain’s center that plays a key role in the processing of emotions) seems to be over-stimulated in people with posttraumatic stress disorder. Research has shown that brain activity during distraction shows decreased activation in the amygdala. Additionally, distraction appears to trigger changes in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, also affected in people with PTSD.

There are various emotion regulations strategies, and some are more useful than others. While distraction may work in the short term, it may have negative long-term consequences.