Suppressing your emotions because you’re afraid of them can be bad for your physical and mental health. Here’s what to do instead.
When a toddler feels a “big” emotion, like anger or sadness, they tend to have a big tantrum on the floor. And these tantrums can be a lot to observe, full of thrashing, screaming, and tears. But a child reacts like this because the emotion they’re feeling is uncomfortable, maybe even painful.
Of course, as adults, we feel emotions too, and those feelings can be just as overwhelming, uncomfortable, or even painful as they were when we were children, even if we don’t let ourselves react in such a big way.
But, sometimes, in our attempts to not give in to our emotions, we go too far: we run from them or suppress them — even if that harms us in the long run. Although there are many reasons we might suppress our emotions, one of them is that we are afraid of our emotions.
Fear of emotions is called “animotophobia. It is not an official term in the DSM-5-TR. Still, fearing your emotions can have a significant impact on your well-being.
“Individuals who fear emotions miss one of the best things of life: living,” says Noelia Leite, licensed psychotherapist, doctor of integrative mental health, and certified hypnotherapist. “People who are afraid of emotions survive; they do not live. Their fear stops them from living the best of their lives.”
This can impact their relationships, their mental health, and even their physical health because it can lead to bursts of rage, isolation, and trouble connecting with others. It can also lead to long-term depression and anxiety.
“It causes so much unnecessary suffering,” says Kirsten Cantley, holistic psychotherapist. “I would compare it to high cholesterol and heart disease.”
We when fear our emotions, we often suppress them. This can lead to long-term health complications or strains in our relationships.
“Suppressed emotions stay in the body and begin to create disease, from pains to immune disorders to IBS to name a few,” she continues. “It also takes a toll on your mental health [because] emotions always come out, whether an unacceptable outburst or acting in a passive-aggressive way.”
If you’re afraid of your emotions, you might:
- develop a pessimistic outlook
- avoid people or activities
- struggle to sleep
- be irritable to be around
- possibly experience big outbursts of anger or tears
People who fear their emotions may also often try to suppress them through avoidance behavior. “People sometimes go to great lengths to not feel,” says Cantley, “which can lead to self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or [other addictive behavior.]”
Often, explains Leite, “fear of emotions may be rooted in past traumas or a pattern of recurrent events such as physical, emotional, or spiritual abuse, traumatic events such as car accidents, loss of loved ones, or war experience.”
Sometimes, this past trauma is unresolved, making someone afraid to re-experience how they have felt before. Someone might not feel a sense of inner safety or get overwhelmed by their emotions — which causes them to try to suppress them rather than feel them. They may also entirely avoid situations that could bring up those difficult emotions.
Other times, “it can stem from childhood and how the role models handled their emotions,” explains Cantley.
For example, psychotherapist Ronnie Adamowicz explains that it could come from parents who would shame or punish their child for expressing emotions. This may not lead to a person fearing their emotions immediately, but it could begin to shape a person’s beliefs on feelings and emotional expression.
“If a child is scared, sad, or angry, and runs to their parents, only to be punished, the child will not feel safe to express their emotions.”
Speak with a therapist
Ultimately, the best way to stop being afraid of your emotions is to slowly and gradually face them.
“[Therapy] offers a safe space for clients to feel safe to express their emotions,” Adamowicz says. “This creates what we call a ‘corrective emotional experience.’” When we have a positive experience expressing our emotions in therapy, we may change our beliefs on the utility of emotions.
Focus on your physical sensations
Because it can be difficult to talk about how an emotion feels, your therapist might also focus on having you describe your physical feelings, rather than your emotional ones.
“[We] have them describe if they notice any subtle feelings in their body as they become fearful of an emotion,” Adamowicz says. “The more they can talk about how it physically feels, the more they can actually be with the emotion.”
Your therapist will also work with you to help normalize your feelings and accept them as valid, rather than suppress them, by teaching you to be gentle and non-judgmental with yourself.
Practicing mindfulness through breathing techniques, meditation, guided imagery, and yoga can help you begin feeling more comfortable sitting with your thoughts and experiencing them without judgment.
Befriend your fear
Finally, you can also “befriend your fear,” says Adamowicz.
“Imagine you had a 5-year-old nephew who was scared,” he says. “What would you do? You wouldn’t walk right past and ignore them. But that’s exactly what we do with our own emotions.”
“[You] need to slow down,” he continues, “Slow down. and stop, and pause, and say hello to the nephew who’s scared…or stop and pause to the part that is feeling fear. Be with the fear. Have a relationship with the fear… Listen to it. let it talk. There is so much wisdom in the emotion itself.”
This means that once we can recognize that our emotions are sources of information, not irrational feelings we need to run away from, we can develop a relationship with our emotions. This can allow us to understand ourselves better and lead a more intentional life.
Many people fear their emotions because emotions can feel unpleasant or scary. However, in reality, our emotions are vital for understanding who we are, what we want, and where we are going. The more we understand and embrace our emotions, the less they control us.
With therapy, it’s possible to become more comfortable with our emotions, rather than suppress them, and that can help reduce the chances of long-term impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing.