Disclosing Our Emotions... Does It Matter?

There is a widely-held belief that expression of emotions is beneficial to wellbeing. Popular culture sometimes tells us that it is healthy to cry and release bottled up feelings. Is it true that expressing our feelings can sometimes be helpful? What implications does this have?  In many difficult situations, individuals find it almost impossible to express their feelings to others. Could inhibiting our emotional responses be harmful to physical or psychological function after trauma or illness?  This article briefly discusses these critical issues. There are many reasons why deeply-held emotions are held inside. Our personality plays a role in our willingness to disclose emotions. There are often practical issues or an absence of opportunity. Sometimes it is difficult to find an individual whom we trust sufficiently to share                                 an intense emotional experience. Frequently, we feel too afraid,                                           embarrassed, guilty uncertain or timid to tell other individuals about a                                   profound experience. It frequently requires considerable courage to                                     discuss a traumatic or hurtful situation with a close and trusted friend.                                 Talking to a complete stranger can be harder still. After many traumatic                               events, the emotional overload can be quite overwhelming and  the                                       memory simply too painful to disclose to other people. Some  people                                   are simply better at articulating their emotions and communicate more                                 easily. Explanations for keeping our feelings deeply inside are  many                                   and varied and depend on individual circumstances.

Does it matter if communicate these intense feelings? Is it better to keep our feelings deep inside and simply cope alone? Could there be potential advantages when we share the emotional burden with others? This article discusses some of the practical issues that occur when we bravely choose to open our hearts to others. It is never easy confronting personal demons but can often be highly rewarding and promote healing and rebuilding. In this article we will look at some specific situations where research studies have been performed. What do experts in the field have to say about this important issue? We shall see.

What do scientific studies reveal?

In recent years a large number of research studies have been conducted to learn more about the effects of disclosing our emotions. The role of emotional disclosure in a wide range of different traumatic situations has been examined. In several studies, significant benefits have been demonstrated. Other studies have proved less convincing. Few studies have demonstrated significant negative effects. More studies will emerge in the next few years which will further clarify this important issue. Many of these research studies have demonstrated clear benefits to health outcomes and psychological well being. Some of the specific types of psychological stress and trauma which have been studied include the following.

  Sexual assault / Rape                                        Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)       Cancer patients                                                 Victims of crime
  School children                                                  Amputees
  Bereavement                                                     Cardiovascular illness
  Military conflict                                                  HIV / AIDS

What possible benefits of emotional disclosure are been revealed by these studies? Many types of potential benefits have been identified in these studies. Several of these studies have concentrated on the effects of emotional disclosure in medical illness. Benefits that have appeared include the following.

     Improved pain tolerance
     Decreased symptom distress
     Improved blood pressure control
     Preservation or improvement in immune system function
     Improved outcomes in cardiovascular disease

Other research studies have focused on the benefits of emotional release to psychological adaptation to severe life changing events and trauma. Once again, a significant number of possible benefits have been highlighted.

     Promotion of effective coping strategies
     Improved communication and understanding
     Decreased perception of psychological stress
     Fewer intrusive thoughts
     Decreased anxiety in social situations

The issues involved are quite complex but our understanding is improving all the time. On balance, the studies appear to show several possible benefits from expressing our emotions. These findings are not really surprising and are consistent with the personal experiences of a large number of people. Later we will discuss some of the practicalities in disclosing our feelings to other people.

How can we express our emotions?

In the modern world, there exists a large number of ways that people can express their feelings. Opportunities are increasing all the time. If we decide to express emotions and search for healing and understanding then numerous opportunities are available. Some of these opportunities are immediately obvious and easily available. Others are less obvious or require a little more effort. Some of the more common methods are listed below.

     Talking with family and friends
     Writing about our experiences, hopes, fears and anxieties (Narrative disclosure)
     Professional counseling, crisis and support services
     Telephone counseling
     Joining a support group
     Chat groups on the web
     Expression through art (Art therapy)
     Expression using music, song or even dance

This list is certainly not exhaustive or complete. Opportunities are often limited only by our imagination. Different approaches work for different people. You may need to think about the right approach for your specific circumstances. It is never easy. Courage and strength are normally needed when we disclose our feelings but the rewards can certainly make it worthwhile. If it can help you, don't be afraid to try it! There is certainly no need to suffer in silence.

How expressing feelings can help

It is not just science that suggests that emotional expression could be beneficial. There are also commonsense, practical reasons why disclosing our emotions may assist healing and recovery. Lets look at ten reasons why sharing our feelings can be beneficial.

Decreased emotional distress
No one can change the past. Sometimes however we can learn to reduce the impact of traumatic past events in our life. We can often decrease the emotional distress caused by these events and stop the past intruding into our life. Even victims of severe psychological trauma such as PTSD have rediscovered functional lives. It isn't easy but it can be done. An important first step is often to make a choice to seek help.

Learning from the experience of others 
Other people who have been exposed to similar situations have often had similar experiences. We can often learn from their experiences and find strength from others when we need it most.

People normally learn to appreciate our special, individual sensitivities and needs if we communicate our feelings. They will understand why certain situations cause us to behave in particular ways. Often they can help us if they can understand us.
Problems can be anticipated and effectively managed

Sharing of knowledge and resources 
Many people who decide to disclose their feelings and proactively seek healing and recovery are pleasantly surprised by the large amount of useful information and helpful resources that are available. Avoidance and denial prevent us gaining access to resources and information which can make a real difference.

Expressing our feelings productively
Individuals who choose to bottle up their feelings often end up expressing these feelings in harmful, antisocial or counterproductive ways. We are all too familiar with these results. Some people become angry, frustrated or, in extreme cases, violent. Inappropriate decisions are made in the heat of the moment. Some people release their emotions using drugs, alcohol, gambling or become promiscuous. At the other end of the spectrum, some people become socially withdrawn and miss out on the rewards of a happy life. It does not have to be this way!

You are not alone 
Some people have had similar experiences to your own. Other people have had experience of healing and recovery. If you choose to live positively and seek a path to rebuilding and recovery, others will eventually share the journey.

It's healthy 
We have discussed the possible health benefits of disclosing our emotions.  If we enjoy a healthy life, we are more likely to remain happy and active in the future. Never underestimate the importance of your health and well being.

Share the burden 
People are often willing to help you when given the opportunity. In most cases they will appreciate your courage and honesty.

Management of difficult emotions 
When exposed to traumatic events, people experience a wide range of emotional responses. Often people feel unnecessarily anxious, guilty or confused. When we express irrational or illogical emotions these can be challenged and we can receive strength and reassurance.  

Regaining control 
Do not let your life be hijacked by emotions like fear, shame, guilt or a sense of desperation. Reclaim control of your life. Acknowledge your feelings and deal with them so that they no longer distress or harm you.

Potential problems with disclosing our feelings

Disclosing emotions is not without some pitfalls and certainly requires a brave heart. Talking about trauma normally requires us to revisit and re-experience events. If you are unsure of your ability to cope with this process, the involvement of a trained psychologist or counselor experienced with trauma would be strongly advised. Despite this, therapy of sever emotional trauma has advanced significantly in recent decades and many survivors have achieved a remarkable amount of healing and rebuilding. Other people may react in ways that we do not anticipate and unexpected issues may arise. Disclosing our feelings can make us vulnerable and we need to be vigilant about other people who could harm or exploit us. Fortunately, most of the consequences which do arise can be managed in an effective manner. Sometimes the benefits of our disclosure are not immediate. It may take time, patience and determination to achieve a reward for our courage. Be strong and persist  you deserve lasting happiness.

Good Luck!

By Doctor Andrew Rylatt (Medical Doctor)
4th January 2005
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