Are Your Physical Symptoms Just Repressed Emotions? A Doctor Explains

Photo: Micky Wiswedel

Do you sometimes have the feeling that your body is trying to tell you something? I have, and it started back during my childhood. When I was a teenager, my mother wanted me to study all the time. I, on the other hand, wanted to play, go for long walks, and talk to boys. Since I was a very obedient only child, I forced myself to study every night, but after a few weeks of this, my skin broke out on my forehead, which became very red and full of cobblestone-like pimples. The rest of my face was intact. The rash only involved my forehead, which was puzzling.

My mother took me to several dermatologists, who tried different skin products and medications, but nothing worked. I could feel it worsening as I was forcing myself to study every night. I knew nothing would work because I knew what the rash was about. The rash was because my body wanted to scream that it didn’t want to stay indoors and study. It wanted to go outside, be active, walk, and be with other kids my age. But I couldn’t. I felt like I was in prison. I felt frustrated, angry, and sad.

All those emotions were repressed deep inside. Yet, on the surface, I had to pretend I was happy. But the rash was like a bright-red light telling the world otherwise.

This rash lasted several years, improving (and sometimes completely resolving) every time I was on vacation and coming back within a few days of studying full-time again. Yet, my doctors continued to treat my symptoms without addressing the deeper cause of my problem.

The rash resolved when I turned 18 and was finally able to express my anger by going to the gym to lift weights five days a week and by jogging on weekends. I am not the only one whose repressed emotions led to physical problems. During my 30 years of practicing medicine, I noticed that a lot of my patients coming for physical problems had repressed emotions. Could those repressed emotions have been the trigger of their physical problems? Could back pain, stomach pain, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and skin problems be triggered by stress, repressed anger, or repressed sadness or another kind of emotion just begging to be recognized? Possibly. What about cancer?

It’s been estimated that around 80 percent of visits to primary care physicians are due to symptoms ultimately caused by stress or emotional problems.

When we suppress negative feelings such as anger, fear, and hurt, our brain’s limbic system goes into action. It sends out chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol that are supposed to prepare our bodies physically to deal with difficult or dangerous situations. This is a great process if, say, we are being attacked and have to defend ourselves or run away, but in everyday life, it can cause more problems than it solves.

What happens is that cortisol suppresses our immune system, making us vulnerable to infection. Cortisol also starts a complex cascade of events that leads to increased inflammation and autoimmune problems such as diabetes, arthritis, stomach problems, and irritable bowel. Adrenaline gives us a faster heart rate and higher blood pressure through vasoconstriction. Our muscles, bathed in excess cortisol and adrenaline, get more excitable and irritable, leading to muscle tension and spasms. All this is occurring in our bodies even as our conscious minds have moved on and we may no longer feel actively angry, upset, or fearful. Yet the emotion is still there in the background.

When hot repressed emotions are bottled up and have nowhere to go, they can burn their owner.

What can we do about this? How can we fix this or prevent this? The way to do this is to express our emotions in a safe environment. Studies performed by Mathew Lieberman and colleagues at UCLA show that by verbalizing our emotions, our limbic system becomes less active. This means less adrenaline and cortisol production and fewer physical symptoms.

Some people like to verbalize emotions through spoken words, others through writing, drawing, dancing, singing or playing a sport. But many people have been taught since childhood that they shouldn’t express their emotions. So, they internalize them, and negative emotions come out as physical symptoms. That is why a lot of symptoms are difficult to treat. Medications are sometimes only a temporary fix. They run the risk of giving side effects and addiction (especially for pain medications).

The key question is: Why is the physical symptom showing up? The answer is different for each person. So, what physical symptoms do you have, and what is your body trying to tell you?

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