Feeling Stressed? Don’t Suppress, Rethink

By Ian Robertson

Ian Robertson is a world-renowned neuroscientist, clinical psychologist and author who studies how stress impacts our day-to-day experience. His books include Mind Sculpture, The Winner Effect and The Stress Test.

Mark had been badly beaten up while walking home one night.

Now he was plagued by intense, disproportionate anger — even at the kid riding his bike on the sidewalk, or the lady squeezing ahead of him into the ticket line at the station.

The anger was eating him up and whenever he felt angry he also felt anxious … then depressed.

Why did Mark get so angry at such trivial incidents?

The answer, it turned out, was that unconsciously he saw every infringement of rules or minor laws as a threat to himself.

In his mind, these small events were evidence of the sort of dangerous lawlessness lurking in the world that had seen him beaten up and badly injured.

So how had Mark tried to cope with these bad emotions?

He had tried to suppress them — he tried to push them out of his mind, but it hadn’t worked and in fact, the harder he tried to suppress them, the more stressed and demoralised and angry he felt.

Thanks to cognitive neuroscience, we now know why Mark’s strategy didn’t work.

In one study, volunteers watched gruesome videos of things like animal slaughter and human surgery.

Some were asked to do what Mark had tried to do, namely suppress their emotional responses by deliberately not turning away and not registering disgust in their expression, for example — these were the emotion suppressers.

Others were asked to adopt the stance of a professional while watching them; by focussing on the technique of the surgeons, for instance, as if they were going to be asked to carry out the procedure in future — these were the emotion rethinkers.

Both groups reported that they felt less emotion when compared to a control group who just watched the films, but there the similarities ended.

Around 4–5 seconds after the video began, the rethinker group’s frontal lobes showed a surge of activity and the brakes were applied to key emotion centres, including in a region called the insula and also to the amygdala.

In the suppress group, on the other hand, activity in the insula and amygdala increased.

Suppressing emotions without rethinking them, as Mark had tried to do for years after his assault, increases adrenaline-linked arousal responses including raised heart rate, blood pressure and skin sweatiness.

It also makes your memory poorer, probably because suppressing an emotion requires fairly constant activity of the frontal lobes. Reappraising on the other hand, though hard work at first, doesn’t make the same sort of constant demands on the frontal lobes as suppression does.

Suppression has other costs, too. Because inhibition is rather a blunt instrument, and because emotions like fear, sexual arousal and anger have so many overlapping arousal “symptoms”, suppressing a negative emotion almost inevitably leads to the suppression of other positive emotions, too. People whose style it is to suppress emotions rather than reappraise them, don’t share their emotions, whether positive or negative, with other people nearly as much as reappraisers do, and as a result are on average less well liked by other people. This is because we tend to trust and like people who are open and self-disclosing.

Mark had to do a lot of this sort of mental reworking over the months that I was seeing him. The jargon word for what he was doing is “reappraisal” and it can be a powerful tool in mastering strong emotions which otherwise may gain the upper hand. The whole frontal lobes of the brain are involved in this mentally demanding work — left and right sides, inside and outside surfaces all working together — reworking the patient’s perspective on bad emotional reactions to tough events. When the frontal lobes work together like this, they send signals to the emotion centres of the brain — a region called the amygdala, in particular — and reduce emotion-generating activity there.

Rethinking distress in this sort of way works like a side-effect-free tranquilliser, directly diminishing unpleasant feelings of fear and anger by lowering the activity in the brain regions that produce them. But it takes hard work and a lot of thinking, which can be very difficult for many people, particularly when their thoughts are clouded by the very stress they are trying to cope with.

Mark hadn’t been able to do any “reappraisal” before I saw him. But he was trying to cope with the emotional turmoil, particularly in the months before his wife finally left him. But he was using a method which people use an awful lot, but which is pretty ineffective, research published around the millennium showed. The method Mark used was to try to bottle up his feelings of anxiety and anger, and try to suppress the thoughts that went with them.

In my book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury), I give more examples of how you can discover the benefits of stress. Try the Stress Questionnaire on www.ianrobertson.org and follow me on Twitter @ihrobertson