The Importance of Emotional Expression

Contributed Article by Erin Elfant-Rea, Ph.D.

In the face of powerful life experiences that evoke fear, worry, grief, anger, and/or sadness, we often rush to soothe these emotions by severely limiting their expression [including soothing eating disorders emotions]. We might tell our friend as her eyes well with tears over her recent break-up to “be strong” and that “it will all be okay”. Our parents may have told us to “just relax” as we shook with fear over pending surgery on a broken leg. Following a year of tireless, unrecognized, hard work, we might notice our own inner voice telling us to “get over it” after being passed over for promotion.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I am very interested in how our bodies respond when we deny the expression of strong feelings. For example, many of my patients have conflicts in the realm of experiencing and displaying anger. Most can put words to why anger goes unexpressed…because of fears of being judged or abandoned, but few are aware of what happens to their bodies as they try to bury their rage. Through examination, they may come to realize that acute physical symptoms (e.g., a migraine, cold, back spasm, loss of appetite) can follow an incident of stifled emotions. And when a style of repressing their feelings develops, they may come to see how their overall health becomes negatively impacted.

It has long been recognized that inhibiting the expression of emotions has a negative impact on both physical and psychological health. Studies have shown that emotional repression is linked to higher reports of medical problems such as chronic pain and immune dysfunction, and psychiatric problems such as eating disorders and somatoform disorders. As a patient of mine once wrote in her journal, “wishing away my hostility and resentment didn’t make them disappear, they just found alternate ways to communicate via my bulimia”.

So we must find ways to express our emotions constructively. We all know that spilling our guts to the wrong people or screaming at everyone who makes us mad are destructive outlets for our feelings. It is a personal journey to find healthy avenues for emotional expression, as each of us responds uniquely when we directly communicate our innermost feelings.

To assist you on this journey, allow yourself to sit quietly and write non-stop about your feelings following an experience of a difficult or stressful event. After completing this exercise, ask yourself if you were inhibited in any way while writing. Did you notice yourself making dismissive statements like “you’re never happy with anything” or “why are you always complaining”? Observe how your body feels. Is your jaw still clenched, your hands still balled into fists, your stomach still upset, your heart still pounding? Or do you feel numb to your feelings, despite knowing that you just experienced a major stressor? Use the result of this writing exercise to give you information about how you tend to handle your emotions.

If you find yourself struggling to access the full spectrum of your emotions, I recommend the aid of a psychotherapist to assist you on your journey to greater health. Know that it is possible to reach deep into yourself and be liberated from emotional pains that may now seem unmanageable or unreachable. Be gentle with yourself and ask for professional help along the way. Every person’s healing is different, with unexpected discoveries and joyous openings of inner peace.

Dr. Erin Elfant-Rea is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who launched New Dawn Eating Disorders Recovery Center in 2005. She has extensive experience working with adults and adolescents with eating disorders in both inpatient and outpatient settings. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Colorado and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Finch University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School. Dr. Elfant-Rea has held positions treating eating disorders at The University of Chicago Hospital, Eating Disorders Recovery Center of Athens, GA, the Eating Disorders Program at the Medical College of Georgia, and Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. Her expertise includes treating co-occurring mood and anxiety spectrum disorders, trauma, and chronic pain conditions. Her treatment approach integrates well-established methods with the latest, empirically-supported techniques. Dr. Elfant-Rea is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Academy for Eating Disorders. Erin is Clinical Director for New Dawn’s Eating Disorders Recovery Center in Sausalito, and San Francisco, CA.

Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 12, 2012
Page last updated June 12, 2012

Article Contributed by our Sponsor~ New Dawn Eating Disorder Recovery Center
Published on, Eating Disorders Online Resources