Is it ever healthy to suppress our emotions?

In a couple of weeks I’m launching a podcast about mental health and its connection to our bodies and the ways we move. I was talking recently to one of my wonderful podcast guests about anxiety, and we discussed what makes being anxious so different to other feelings, so physical and all-encompassing. We shared our own experiences and though anxiety did manifest itself in uniquely unpleasant and ludicrous ways for each of us the common thread was that it seeps into everything – eating, sleeping, even breathing. To me that’s the thing that sets it apart from other ‘negative’ emotions – I’ve definitely been feeling angry or guilty or upset but found myself distracted by everyday life to such a degree that those feelings sort of faded into the background. I suddenly realised I wasn’t thinking about them anymore, at least for a little while. I have never, in 29 years thought “huh, I forgot I was feeling cripplingly anxious this morning.” It’s like there’s no respite, no thinking about something else or just experiencing another emotion for a while.

This got me thinking about something a therapist suggested I try years ago that I pretty much dismissed until recently (I generally advise against dismissing things therapists say). She said that I couldn’t necessarily make the anxious feelings go away, but I could choose when I engaged with them. Her concept was that I allocate an hour or two a day to all my anxious thoughts and feelings, but for the rest of the day I just, put them aside. “Isn’t that like suppressing my emotions?” I asked, knowing how badly that had worked out in the past, but she said I didn’t need to feel something for every minute of every day to feel it. For whatever reason, at the time, I didn’t engage much with this idea. Maybe it just sounded too unachievable. Maybe there was something safe about my constant worrying. But in the last few months I’ve been giving it a try, and it’s been a bit of an awakening.

Sometimes when I’m feeling especially stressed or strung out my brain will fixate on one scary thing (usually nothing at all to do with what I’m stressed about) as a means of focusing my anxiety and giving me a ‘reason’ to feel the way I do. I have some recurring ones – having a stroke is a doozy. Also loved ones dying, though I think that’s a popular choice. I decided that 6-7pm would be anxious hour (worst chat show ever) and so I started pushing aside, or ‘supressing’ these thoughts until that time slot. One of the first things I realised is how much meditation helps with this. When we meditate we choose to focus on our breath, or mantra, or whatever we’re listening to, and when thoughts come up we acknowledge them, letting them float in and out like clouds across the sky. I often say to my class when leading a guided meditation, “don’t give those thoughts your energy now, you can come back to them later.” This is exactly what allocating anxious time allows me to do. Only, rather than having 10 minutes of quiet time and a whole day of internal noise, I straight up flip reverse it.

This isn’t to say that I spend all day feeling relaxed and only one hour feeling anxious – the technique isn’t THAT good. But it does mean that my mind, and even my body, is starting to treat anxiety like all the other thoughts and feelings – as something that can be expressed and experienced but doesn’t need my constant attention. Even if the sicky, weight-in-pit-of-stomach is still there, at least my mind is a little freer to think about something other than fear. And like anything it gets easier with practice. At the beginning it felt very strange telling myself to park a thought; for one thing, the thought often hung around regardless of what I told myself, then I got weirdly nervous that I’d forget the anxious thought and somehow be left unprepared. The more I’ve tried this method of compartmentalisation the easier it has been to choose if and when a thought gets my attention. And that in itself has taken some of the anxiety’s power away, meaning a few words in my head are far less likely to send my body into spasms of panic.

I’d advise trying to spend your hour of anxious indulgence somewhere that isn’t your home – going for a walk or sitting outside can help it feel less overwhelming and less like you are trapped. I’d be interested to know how people find this technique, so let me know if you give it a try.