Anxiety is uncomfortable. There is the fear that something bad is coming, or a worry that the worst will happen. Then there are the physical symptoms. You might start sweating, have a fast heart rate, and feel nauseous or faint. Different types of anxiety lead to different experiences, but all of them are stressful to those that experience them.
Wherever and however you experience an anxiety disorder, the discomfort of the associated emotions – and the stigma associated with mental health problems - can push you into repressing your anxiety. Repressing feelings of fear, worry, and stress may even give you a short-term fix.
But relying on repression instead of addressing the underlying causes and symptoms of anxiety will only make your anxiety worse, causing it to increase over time until suppression is no longer an option.
What Does it Mean to Repress Anxiety?
Repression occurs when you push thoughts and emotions out of your mind in an effort to forget them. There are a range of emotions associated with anxiety that you might repress, including:
These negative feelings are part of what makes anxiety so uncomfortable. By repressing them, you may be able to forget anxiety, at least for a short time.
Repression is not just about outwardly expressing your emotions. Many people are reserved in sharing their thoughts and emotions with others without repressing. Those who are repressing anxiety cannot admit to even themselves that they are experiencing anxiety.
Differences Between Repression and Suppression
In psychology, there is a slight difference between repression and suppression. Repression happens subconsciously. Suppression is a voluntary blocking of your anxiety where you make an effort not to confront anxiety. Both are mental defense mechanisms, and both can have detrimental effects to your mental well-being.
For the purpose of this article, we will use suppression and repression interchangeably to refer to the act of not feeling anxiety when you otherwise would, whether you do so consciously or not. The effects are almost entirely the same and the solutions - which we will discuss near the end of the guide - are similar.
Why Do We Suppress Anxiety?
The most common reason for repressing anxiety is the discomfort it causes. No one wants to feel negative emotions at any time, and the emotional response that accompanies anxiety is difficult. If you have an anxiety disorder and are dealing with stress and worry frequently, you may suppress uncomfortable emotions so that you can work, attend school, and deal with family matters day to day.
But you may also avoid feelings of anxiety because of expectations you learned earlier in life. Society, your family, and your peers can give you the idea that anxiety is a weakness. You may have been told to calm down or “don’t be a wimp” when you were growing up. Some people associate their ability to withstand fear and worry with their gender or personality, with men told not to show emotion, or women told not to allow emotion to control them.
How Anxiety Repression Can Make Anxiety Worse
When you experience a moment of anxiety, there are several different ways to regulate the negative emotions. Effective strategies can include acknowledging your anxiety and continuing to push through, perhaps redirecting your attention during the event. Reappraisal is another strategy in which you adjust how you feel about something after assessing it, such as when you realize that you are anticipating the worst, but the worst is unlikely to happen.
Suppressing anxiety is considered a maladaptive coping strategy. It can provide some temporary relief, but in the long term it will not work and potentially make anxiety worse. Suppressing and repressing your anxiety can lead to several issues that may contribute to experiencing an even more significant anxiety issue, including the following:
Ignoring the Underlying Cause of Anxiety
Repressing anxiety means you do not have to deal with the negative feelings, but it also means you are not dealing with the cause of anxiety. As a result, your anxiety and your repression continues on.
For example, consider someone who is having trouble in their relationship. The breakdown of communication in the relationship can cause some anxiety. But by denying the anxiety, this person cannot take steps to improve their relationship, leading to more anxiety.
If you have an anxiety disorder, suppressing your anxiety can keep you from understanding and dealing with the cause of that disorder. Disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and phobias can all be treated, but it often requires you to acknowledge that you are experiencing anxiety. Trying to ignore your anxiety means that you’re not treating it, which allows it to fester and grow.
Physical Health Problems
The body and mind are connected. Repressed emotions will eventually show up as physical symptoms such as:
- Muscle Tension
- High Blood Pressure
- Trouble Sleeping
- Appetite Changes
These are unpleasant symptoms on their own, and can cause longer term health problems by making your body more susceptible to infection and disease. But most importantly, these symptoms are similar to the physical symptoms of anxiety. When you are anxious, your muscles will tense up and you may feel sick to your stomach.
The process works in reverse. When you have the physical symptoms of anxiety, it can trigger an emotional response as well. This leads to repressed anxiety causing you to feel more anxious - mentally and physically - more of the time.
The Energy it Takes to Repress
You don’t always notice it, but coping with stress and anxiety requires a lot of mental energy. It’s why anxiety is more common when you’re tired, because your mind doesn’t always work properly or have the resources to control your stress.
Repression requires a lot of mental energy. Anxiety wants to come out. By suppressing those emotions, you’re putting additional stress on yourself, which in turn can lead to more anxiety.
These are only some of the ways that suppression can be problematic for someone trying to control their anxiety symptoms, and why repressing anxiety has a tendency to make it worse.
Avoiding Suppression of Anxiety
Suppressing anxiety can seem easier and more comfortable. But the longer you do it, the more difficult it can be to finally accept the anxiety, process it, and overcome it. Learning to stop repressing anxiety will help prevent your anxiety from becoming worse, and enable you to start reducing symptoms.
When you are unconsciously repressing anxiety, you may not know it. Some indications include:
- Feeling nervous without knowing why.
- Feeling numb or emotionless.
- Being uncomfortable with discussing or considering negative emotions.
- Tending to forget thoughts and experiences.
- Often feeling calm or cheerful, even when in a stressful situation.
- Have trouble connecting with other people on an emotional level.
- Use things like television, internet browsing, and alcohol to keep yourself numb.
Talking with a therapist can also help you determine if you are repressing the emotions around anxiety and give you the tools to process them instead.
For both suppression and repression, these tools often start by naming when you feel anxiety. Being honest with your thoughts and emotions creates space for you to address what is realistic and is unhelpful, and respond accordingly.
Reducing your repression of anxiety is not usually a fast process, and if repression has become a habit, it may take a concentrated effort. Anxiety is a challenge on its own, whether you experience it at stressful times or have an anxiety disorder, but repressing your emotions will only make those challenges harder to face.