You Have to Feel to Heal: Emotional Awareness
Suppressed emotions can be dangerous and damage your memory.
Posted December 5, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Repressed/suppressed emotions fire up the nervous system even more than expressed unpleasant ones.
- Since we cannot escape our consciousness, we have a relentless source of pain unique to humans.
- Allowing yourself to feel emotional pain is a necessary step in rerouting your brain away from it.
Why is there such a block to experiencing deep emotions? It lies in our evolution. Being physically vulnerable is not rewarded in nature. It really is survival of the fittest and being vulnerable is paramount to death. For example, in herds or packs of animals, the weaker ones are pushed to the edge of the pack, where they are susceptible to predators. The stronger leaders are more protected. We know what happens to the weakest hen in a chicken coop. Humans are programmed with the same survival instincts. There is a huge difference in that we possess language, which creates another level of mental threats. Since we cannot escape our thoughts, we are all subjected to some level of ongoing threat physiology unless we implement specific strategies to process them. It is at the core of all chronic diseases, including chronic pain.1
Research shows that mental threats are processed in a similar manner in your brain as physical pain. They share overlapping neurological circuitry.2 It is no wonder that we expend a tremendous amount of energy avoiding emotional pain. “You hurt my feelings" is a classic statement that also characterizes the situation. We are programmed to be strong to survive and it hurts to feel. So there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to change anything. The common strategy is to suppress (conscious act) or repress (unconscious reaction) our thoughts and emotions. They are dangerous approaches, but that is all most of us know and how we were raised. “Children should be seen and not heard” is a phrase I heard frequently. Or, “Life is tough, deal with it.”
But there is a powerful reason to consider training and allowing yourself to feel. Awareness and vulnerability are the essence of successful relationships in all aspects of your life. It is a challenging learned skill with one aspect of it being figuring out who you can truly trust—and you will repeatedly fail. If a person betrays your trust, the outcome can be devastating. Then what do you do? Learning to be vulnerable means allowing yourself to feel the pain, processing it, and continuing to move forward. Many people quit trying at a certain breaking point and others never begin.
Breach of trust
It is also the reason that being raised in an abusive family situation is so damaging. The people that the universe entrusted to care for and nurture you broke that trust. How can you be vulnerable and allow yourself to feel if you never knew what it was like to feel safe? That was your parent’s basic responsibility; to provide a safe haven and nurture you.
Consider a feral cat that has to fend for itself from birth. Its reality is that it cannot relax, and it is challenging to tame. If you are that child that doesn’t ever know the feeling of being safe, life does not get easier, and your hypervigilance will continue to progress. Your body will be under constant attack from stress hormones and inflammatory cells. The data around a chaotic childhood is compelling; you not only have a higher chance of developing a serious illness or disease, but life spans are shortened.3
The consequences of repression/suppression
Not only does repression/suppression of emotions keep your flight-or-fight response fired up, but it also can cause brain damage. The hippocampus is an important structure in your brain that is at the center of memory retrieval. It has been shown that suppression of unpleasant memories induces amnesia of other events surrounding the unpleasant one. It also affects new learning and processing of new information. The final sentence of this paper says, “Efforts to forget a troubling past, ironically, may leave amnesia for the present in their wake.”4
The way out
You cannot go from repressing/suppressing painful emotions to being free from their grip without specific approaches. You have to “feel to heal” but if you were exposed to the full force of your unpleasant emotions, it would be intolerable. The pain would be too intense. It is impossible. Instead, there is a process called “pendulation.” The idea is that you allow yourself to be exposed to a level of emotions you can tolerate, pull back, and re-engage when you are ready. It is a lifelong process that eventually becomes automatic. Then instead of your energy being consumed by keeping a lid on your emotions, you are free to step into your life and thrive.
It is the reason that the healing journey has evolved the way it has. It begins with you connecting with your disbelief, engaging in simple calming tools, and gradually teaching you the skills to minimize your exposure to threat physiology and create safety. In other words, you will learn to efficiently process stress and also be nice to yourself. Mind over matter does not work, nor does positive thinking. Both of those block connection to your emotions.
What is so rewarding about this whole process is that people not only break out of the abyss of pain, but they often end up leading a life that they never knew was possible. It is moving onto these more enjoyable neurological circuits that creates healing.
Why don’t more people pursue a path of self-discovery? It is painful. We spend a lot of energy working on feeling good to avoid feeling bad. The true answer lies in training yourself to tolerate “bad,” and “good” can and will emerge. It is learned and accessible skill.
Being aware of our inborn tendency to be judgmental is another important awareness that will be discussed next. You will see that the need to engage in this process is a way of avoiding emotional awareness.
Questions and considerations
- Have you ever wondered why you don’t want to feel unpleasant emotions? You are being physically threatened. It is because they are painful because pain has a common neurological circuitry, whether the pain is mental or physical.
- Anxiety is the sensation generated by your body’s chemistry when you are in flight or fight. It is intended to be so unpleasant that you are forced to take action to escape. We will do almost anything to avoid it.
- It is ironic that the main strategy we use, suppression/repression is the worst choice. In addition to depleting your life energies, it can cause damage to your brain. You do have to feel to heal.
- Consider your situation. You may be suffering from physical pain, but what about your anxiety? Which one is more challenging to deal with?
- Fortunately, as you solve your mental pain, the physical symptoms usually abate.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
1. Wegner DM. The seed of our undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999); Jan/Feb:10-11.
2. Eisenberger NI, et al. An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain (2006); 126:132-138. doi: 10.1016j.pain.2006.06024
3. Smyth J, et al. Stress and disease: A structural and functional analysis. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013); 7/4: 217-227. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12020
4. Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2016); 7:11003 doi: 10.1038/ncomms11003