Sunday 16 February 2020

BRiC's Collective Voice: To repress or not to repress, Feb., 1, 2020

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To repress means moving something painful away from conscious experience. In fact, the brain does this automatically when the emotional pain is too much to handle. Avoidance, distraction, replacement, dissociation, all involve repression. When practiced, it becomes a habit and we do it almost spontaneously.

We’ve often heard of the ‘I’m fine’, when we are not, ‘I’ve just got to get on with it’, ‘it’s a chapter I’ve put aside’, ‘its on the shelf now in a box’ ‘ignore it’, ‘I don’t want to think about it’.

Does repressive coping help?

Research on the brain shows that people who repress, and downplay their emotions, process even greater levels of threat sometimes greater than those who report high anxiety. Avoidance also weighs heavy on brain networks. So, physiologically there are signs of distress.

Repressive coping is regarded a possible risk factor for physical disease as well as a consequence of chronic illness, and as such is very relevant in breast cancer. Repressive coping is linked with cancer, cardiovascular disease, crohn’s disease, hypertension and so forth. While most of the evidence is correlational, recent work is trying to establish a causal relationship, especially with chronic stress.

Our members discussed how they’d used repressive coping. Almost everyone agreed that they repressed and hid their true feelings and fears at time of diagnosis and through treatment. Many of us felt completely numb, due to the shock, in fact we didn’t know what we were feeling. Numbness is another form of repression. Through time however, the repressed feelings are rising to the surface. We can feel confused. We become aware of those feelings but we find it difficult to deal with them. There are mixed feelings. We feel mentally exhausted, fatigued, we are fearful of crying because ‘I may just cry forever’, ‘I just want to scream’. The pain is difficult to digest, and so it may express itself through ‘mini melt-downs’, ‘not coping with side effects efficiently’.

The brain can learn how to let go, and help us regulate our emotions. Repression brings rigidity, and hinders brain plasticity. Talking helps, writing helps, exercise helps. Breathing helps. Crying is a good release. Reaching out for help, helps! Facing our fears and embracing them can work. Many of us reported that counselling has helped, but the process of healing for some of us can be longer. What we agreed on is the awareness of those feelings, and that is a major first step.

So, the question of whether repressive coping works or not has an easy answer. Sometimes repression can work in the short term, but the longer term effects on our physiology take a toll.

If you are a woman affected by breast cancer and are living in the UK and would like to join our private group message us here and we will get back to you.