Constructively expressing emotions good for your mental, physical health

Nobody likes to feel out of control. We like to believe our behavior will reflect what we want, value and choose.

Most of us see our feelings or emotions as threatening to our self-control. It's almost as if our emotions have a will of their own. We struggle to control them, but they often seem to wind up controlling us.

The common way to deal with this dilemma is to clamp down even harder on our feelings.

"I'm not angry," we mutter between clenched teeth. "I won't cry" is accompanied by frantic eye rubbing. We smile hesitantly instead of shouting for joy.

Sometimes we get so good at this that we lose much of our ability to consciously feel anything. We push our anger, our hurt, our joy out of our awareness. We repress our emotions so well that we seem devoid of feelings to those around us as well.

Ironically, such repression does not decrease our emotions' effect on our behavior. It actually magnifies it. Our hidden feelings take on a new and sometimes frightening power in our lives.

Often, for example, our repressed anger bubbles over in a violent eruption, hurting us and those around us. Or our unacknowledged hurt or fear leads to feelings of depression or anxiety. And our efforts to tightly control our joyful emotions ultimately dampen our ability to feel them in any situation.

Such emotional repression leads to a host of physical problems. Ulcers, high blood pressure, muscle spasms, susceptibility to colds and flus, even our risk of cancer all are affected by the way we choose to deal with our emotions.

You can't win. If the choice is between controlling our feelings or our feelings controlling us, it looks like we lose either way. But perhaps there's another way.

I suggest to my counseling clients that being aware of, accepting and constructively expressing our emotions is a healthy alternative to the dilemma. By doing so we actually increase the part our rational wants, values and choices play in our behavior.

For instance, if we are angry with our spouse, the following scenario might make some sense. First, we need to identify the feelings we are having as anger. We might notice we are talking with a cold, distant tone in our voice, our hands are clenched, and eye contact is difficult. Hey - we're angry!

The second step may be the most difficult. It involves accepting that it is OK to feel angry. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. Many emotions are uncomfortable. And there are probably a good many we'd just as soon avoid altogether.

But we really can't control what we feel. Emotions, from love to hatred, from joy to sorrow, are simply a part of being human. We need to accept them as just that.

Once we have accepted our feelings, we can choose how we can constructively express them. We may directly tell our spouse: "I'm really angry. I need to talk."

Sometimes such direct expression won't work. When a friend of mine gets angry at expressway drivers, he resists the temptation to force them over and give them a piece of his mind. He does express his frustration by laughing at some of their ridiculous antics.

When I am feeling just plain fed up with everything in general, I sometimes express this in a good, long workout. My feelings are expressed in the intensity of my exercise.

Awareness, acceptance and constructive expression are crucial as we deal with our emotional selves. Most of us have received little training in developing such a style, but we can learn.

A number of good books are available on this subject. We might even want to consider individual counseling to help us over the rough spots.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.