The Dangers of Hiding What You Truly Feel

Censoring yourself can adversely impact your physical health.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” —Nelson Mandela

Source: zimmytws/iStockphoto

While some people correctly argue that censorship is necessary for civilization when free speech intrudes on the safety or well-being of others, censoring yourself can have deleterious effects on your health, and censoring others can impact their health too. For this reason alone, holding our tongues can pose a physical problem.

Biased online censorship is rife: Well-being starts with what we can control, and "how we treat people" counts as one of those factors we can control.

In August 2020, social psychology graduate student Ashwini Ashokkumar and her colleagues demonstrated that people who moderate online forums are significantly biased against people whose views do not align with their own, especially when their views were tied to their identities. They censored them and, as a result, limited society's exposure to a full range of viewpoints. They concluded that these kinds of threats are likely to disrupt social harmony too. But it's not just social harmony, but our bodies that suffer in the long run.

Emotional suppression and mortality: In 2013, psychologist Benjamin Chapman and his colleagues explained that suppressing our emotions can lead to earlier death, even from cancer. In fact, when you summarize the data across 22 studies, people who suppress their feelings have a greater chance of developing cancer or hypertension. It turns out that when you put a lid on your feelings, you are actually metaphorically creating a high-pressure chamber in your brain such that your fight-or-flight systems are in overdrive. Since the brain sends these signals to the rest of your body, no organ is spared.

Regardless of your political affiliations, when you "shut up," and your viewpoints are censored, you are placing your health at risk. In the long run, your body will cave under this pressure. I believe that we already realize this, which is why we seek to express ourselves around people who share our points of view.

But if you have such people, you're in luck. More recent surveys indicate that more than three out of five Americans are lonely, so eliminating the Internet as a means of connection will only worsen this.

Our bodies are not separate from society: While there is considerable funding dedicated to the end states of this repression, such as the molecular basis of cancer and heart rate monitoring, there is comparatively little attention paid to important correlations such as emotional suppression. Given the push to legalize drugs such as marijuana and psychedelics, our society must at least unconsciously recognize the need to create a valve to release some of this pressure build-up. But again, the approach is molecular and chemical when we could at least also recognize the space we do not make for free expression in our society.

So what, then? I believe that we need to fight unnecessary online censorship. At a time when our mouths are blocked by masks, and social contact is limited, unnecessary censorship poses a health risk that is not being recognized because it seems esoteric. The tendency to recklessly support banning accounts or deleting or hiding comments will take a toll on psychological and physical health. 

If you feel you are a victim of this, rather than reacting by censoring yourself, consider alternative forms of self-expression, such as inviting people of all views to comment on your blog. If you are fortunate enough to have a social circle open enough to accept different points of view, invest time in this. It will protect your psychology and your body. And if your views feel contradictory to you (e.g., if you are pro-choice but also pro-freedom of speech—or pro-"right to bear arms" but also against random violence), see if you can find your voice in poetry, song, drawing, doodling, or in your own head as you go on a morning walk. Paradoxes are unavoidable.

Reject being censored. Your voice is a condition for staying alive.