Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Emotion suppression

Emotion suppression:
Why are emotions suppressed and what are the consequences?


Figure 1. Anger may be suppressed to adapt to social settings.

There are countless times through the day that our environments create ups and downs which elicit emotions. Emotions are an integral part of functioning and adjusting to social situations at both the intra and interpersonal level and individuals will often appear less emotional than what they are feeling on the inside. The way we actively shape and regulate emotional responses can lead to both adaptive and maladaptive behaviours (Szczygiel & Maruszewski, 2015). In one study, inhibiting emotion-expressive behaviours were reported as occurring almost 25% of the reporting period (Richards & Gross, 1999).

People may decide to appear less emotional, such as in Figure 1, when it is socially beneficial to, such as choosing to behave in a way that is more socially acceptable instead of getting angry about a sexist comment by a work colleague or about your partner’s behaviour at a party that upsets you (Richards & Gross, 1999). This is associated with healthy adapting and adjustment as well as prosocial or morally suitable behaviour and general social competence (Matsumoto, Yoo & Nakagawa, 2008). In these situations emotion suppression aims to change the overt appearance of how we are feeling by inhibiting emotion-expressive behaviour (Richards & Gross, 1999).  The adaption needed in these situations is altering the expression of our emotions through the suppression of emotion expression. (Szczygiel & Maruszewski, 2015).

This requires effort to inhibit the expression of an emotion while being emotionally aroused. It might sound easy but,[grammar?] emotion suppression leads to an increase in the physiological responses in the body, which can have negative outcomes. Interestingly, data suggests that suppressing the expression of negative emotions does not impact the self-reported experience of those negative emotions[factual?]. However, while the requirement to engage in emotion suppression is seen in everyday life to support social goals and positive interpersonal functioning, it appears to come at a price. (Szczygiel & Maruszewski, 2015)[explain?].

Focus questions
  • How do we manage to suppress our emotions?
  • What psychological theory can help explain emotion suppression?
  • Are there any problems with choosing to suppress our emotions?

What is emotion suppression?


[Provide more detail]

What are emotions?


Emotions are a positive or negative mental state that is created with thoughts, feelings and behavioural responses and are usually entwined with personality, temperament and mood (Gross & Levenson, 1993). Emotions facilitate our adaptive responses to everyday challenges that occur in our environment. These daily challenges can be social, physical or psychological and produce a behaviour that may be adaptive or maladaptive (Keltner & Gross, 1999).

There are many reasons why individuals choose to regulate their emotions. Some emotion regulation can be healthy while other forms can be detrimental to health and well-being. A common form of emotional regulation is expressive suppression which inhibits or alters the way we may respond to a particular event that elicits an emotional response. Self-control is required to override impulses to behave in a way that inhibits the outward signs of emotion like keeping a “poker face” (Kühn, Gallinat & Brass, 2011).

Definition of emotion suppression


Emotional regulation takes a number of forms, three common strategies for regulation are mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal and emotion suppression (Gross & Levenson, 1993). Emotion suppression is defined as the conscious inhibition of the expressive behaviour of an emotion while being emotionally aroused. Practically it is like the saying to "count to 10 before responding" which essentially aims to keep an emotion in check (Gross & Levenson, 1993). Generally, adults are quite adept at inhibiting displays of emotions even while in the middle of an emotional high (Richards & Gross, 1999). During emotion suppression, the outwards signs of emotions may reduce or alter so an individual may appear calm and collected, while the effect of the emotion continues.

Figure 3. Emotion regulation may include mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal and emotion suppression.

However, it is suggested that inhibiting one emotional response is likely to see another expression of those emotions at a subsequent time[factual?]. For example, ongoing inhibition of emotions related to anger may lead to hypertension and coronary heart disease (Gross & Levenson, 1993). The research undertaken by Gross and Levenson (1993) indicated that the suppression of emotions leads to physiological changes such as a decrease in facial behaviour and body movements, decreased heart rate and a corresponding increase in the sympathetic nervous system with increased blinking and skin conductance suggesting an increased state of arousal. These physiological changes seem to be dependent on the emotion being suppressed[factual?]. Ohira et al., (2006) also found that heart rate appears to be sensitive to emotions, while blood pressure, finger pulse amplitude, finger temperature and pulse times were included in the paradoxical effects[explain?]. The brain regions involved in the physiological changes associated with emotion suppression include parts of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, hypothalamus and ventral striatum (Ohira et al., 2006).

Suppression is a response focused strategy that occurs during an emotional experience (Kühn, Gallinat & Brass, 2011). There seems to be no impact on the subjective ‘feeling’ of the emotional experience and ethnicity does not appear to moderate this (Roberts, Levenson & Gross, 2008). However, habitual use of expressive suppression has been linked to adverse health and psychological functioning (Soto et al., 2011). The areas effected[grammar?] include; decreased experience of positive emotions and increased experience of negative emotions, increased sympathetic arousal and potential disturbances to interpersonal interactions. Additionally, an increase in reports of depressed mood as well as decreased reports of well-being and life satisfaction all suggest that chronic use of suppression can lead to unhealthy outcomes (Soto et al., 2011).

When emotion suppression is maladaptive


The regulation of emotions to achieve goal-directed outcomes has become important in social[say what?] psychology. The following case studies provide examples of emotion suppression use that is maladaptive and can lead to unhealthy outcomes.

Case study 1
In a relationship

Nancy is in a relationship with Bill. Nancy keeps her emotions from being displayed at times because she think it supports more positive interactions. However, over time she finds it is disrupting their ability to communicate well and they are both finding discontent and dissatisfaction is creeping into their relationship. How can this be? Research has shown that expressive suppression is a costly form of emotion regulation. It disrupts the ability to communicate successfully, causes elevation in blood pressure in both the person regulating their emotions and their partner, and disrupts the relationship negotiations that are an important aspect of relationships (Butler et al., 2003). As a result the sense of connection within the relationship is reduced and the ability to maintain an intimate relationship is effected (Butler et al., 2003). Relationship researchers call the reduced levels of emotion expression ‘stonewalling’ resulting in the partners of the suppressors reporting a reduced sense of liking their partner and a reduced willingness to form and maintain friendship with them (Butler et al., 2003). This can be due to reduced responsiveness and self-disclosure that intimate relationships depend on (Butler et al., 2003). Nancy is effectively reducing the satisfaction of both her and Bill as they are avoiding interpersonal connection.

Case study 2

James has high trait anger, he has difficulties with anger regulation that can lead to aggression, interpersonal issues and negative health implications (Germain & Kangas, 2015). Approaches to treat his problems include explicit acceptance of emotions as they present and to work through the related behaviours in a response-focused way. (Germain & Kangas, 2015). James would be discouraged from suppressing emotions and inhibiting his emotion-expressive behaviour as this could provoke further unwanted behaviours, outbursts and raised blood pressure leading to maladaptive cardiovascular responses (Germain & Kangas, 2015). One study also showed that individuals like James with high trait anger who suppress emotions reported higher levels of intrusive thoughts and feelings of anger in the 24 hours following the arousal (Germain & Kangas, 2015). Suppression may be considered a short-term solution for some but the longer term effects still require some research. In the case of James, experiential avoidance would be considered an unhelpful strategy and it may increase unwanted emotions (Germain & Kangas, 2015).

Key theory


[Provide more detail]

Process model of emotional regulation

Figure 4. Typical flow of emotion development and response.

There are times when emotions help with suitable responses and other times they can be destructive (Gross, 2013). Having the ability to cultivate the right emotions and alter the generation of harmful ones can assist in a number of settings (Gross, 2013). For example, there may be times when the regulation of an emotion is explicit, like trying to look calm and not anxious prior to giving a speech at school, university or work (Gross, 2013). The opportunity to make changes to our emotions can occur during the ‘assembly’ of an emotion. (Gross, 2013)  The process model of emotion regulation by Gross (Figure 4. Gross & Thompson, 2007) is a framework that shows the five steps of emotion generation and where a change could occur (Butler et al., 2003). The steps are; situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change and response modulation (Gross, 2013). The suppression of expressive emotions takes place at the response modulation phase quite late in the process when a person is already emotionally aroused and the emotional response is well underway. Achieving emotion expression inhibition at this stage is demanding and requires effortful self-control (Gross, 2013).

What happens when someone consciously suppresses an emotional response?


Suppressing emotions is a demanding strategy for emotion regulation,[grammar?] it requires effortful self-control to deliberately override behaviour impulses.  The ability to engage in these acts of self-control may be limited due to a finite amount of resources available to attend to self regulation (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015), leaving the person less resources to perform other demanding cognitive acts (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015). Due to these limited resources the corresponding emotional experience will unlikely be suppressed therefore the negative affect will still be felt. For an individual with low self-regulatory strength the incongruence created and depletion of resources experienced may also lead to maladaptive social behaviour (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015). If someone has high self-regulatory strength they may be able to manage to suppress their emotional expression and still have the resources to exert control over the experience of emotion to produce appropriate social behaviour (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015).

The use of self regulation will likely create a discrepancy between the inner experience compared to the outward experience leading to a feeling of being inauthentic, dishonest or not being true to ones[grammar?] self (John & Gross, 2004). These feelings of self negativity can lead to reduced confidence in interpersonal behaviour, poor development of emotionally close relationships and social alienation. Individuals who use emotion suppression frequently also show poorer understanding of their moods, are less positive and find it harder to repair or improve their moods (John & Gross, 2004). All this can lead to shutting down emotions that are harmful to well being, increase negative affect and depressive symptoms (John & Gross, 2004).  

Consequences of Emotion Suppression


The regulation of emotions to achieve goal-directed outcomes has become important in social psychology. Many studies have captured the intrapersonal effects of suppression on cognition and affect as well as interpersonal functions associated with prosocial behaviour and adaptation (Matsumoto et al., 2008). The suppression of emotions has been shown to be negatively correlated to health and well being and may lead to reduced cognitive performance (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015).

Cognitive Impacts

Figure 5. Emotion suppression has cognitive effects.
  • Memory - Not only does emotion suppression have an effect on our expressive emotions it also appears to have an affect on cognitive functioning (Richards and Gross, 1999). In particular the performance of working memory, the ability to process and maintain new information over short periods can be compromised (Szczygiel & Maruszewski, 2015). Richards and Gross (1999) thought that attention was a finite resource and that the increased physiological arousal during emotion suppression may inhibit or deplete these mental resources. This depletion in turn degrades the subsequent cognitive task of encoding, the next process of memory. Their research supported this, showing that verbal encoding was reduced following active suppression in a test environment. Szczygiel and Maruszewski (2015) found that suppression impacted both memory of events that occur during the suppression period and further impaired subsequent cognitive task performance post the period of suppression. They proposed that the effortful self-regulatory task of expressive behaviour suppression not only increases physiological arousal including blood pressure and heart rate, but may effect available attentional resources causing inaccurate social inferences and recollections of social interactions (Szczygiel & Maruszewski, 2015).
  • Mental health - a study focussed on youth found that those experiencing adverse life events and increased psychological distress showed a heightened tendency to engage in expressive suppression as a tool for moderating their distress (Voon, Hasking, & Martin, 2014). Unfortunately, when it comes to non-suicidal self-injury Voon et al. (2014) found expressive suppression appears to amplify distress and is a trigger for self harming. Therefore being more open to expression is a preferred behaviour. In addition, Defrance and Hollenstein (2019) found that high levels of suppression use is more strongly associated with depressive symptoms and anxiety. Depressed mood and decreased life satisfaction has also been reported by Soto et al., (2011) especially in members of individualistic cultures where emotion expression is open and encouraged.

Physiological Impacts

  • General risks - researchers have long suspected that the suppressing of emotions has an impact on health (Chapman, Fiscella, Kawachi, Duberstein, & Muennig, 2013). It is thought that suppression may induce a range of unhealthy or maladaptive coping behaviours that may become substitutes for emotions, such as over eating ( Chapman et al., 2013). In addition, there are physiological changes such as the increased response of the autonomic system that are implicated in a number of chronic health conditions and potentially early death ( Chapman et al., 2013). Other research has found that those individuals who allow open expression of emotions actually show reduced physiological response to stimuli compared to less expressive individuals (Butler, Lee, & Gross, 2009). Interestingly, markers for health and disease in older adults indicates the effect of emotion suppression may reduce in older cohorts (Soto et al., 2011).
  • Cardiovascular health - Some research suggests that those who chronically inhibit emotions have a heightened threat of disease. Specifically those who inhibit anger and hostility may display increased hypertension and heart disease while the onset of cancer is also hypothesised (Gross & Levenson, 1993). Trait anger has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and Quartana and Burns (2010) links the experience of anger and its expression or suppression to heightened incidence of hypertension. The suppression of anger which is an active and effortful response against another cognitive or behavioural activity appears to increase the sympathetic response of the cardiovascular system similar to a stress response (Quartana & Burns, 2010). Emotion suppression, the sympathetic activation and observed physiological toll have been linked to increased cardiovascular responses to both initial and subsequent stressors as well as a heightened incidence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, all contributing to the pathogenesis of the disease or at least increasing the risk (Quartana & Burns, 2010).



Select the best response to the questions and submit.

1 In which stage of emotion generation will emotion-expressive behaviour be suppressed?

situation selection
attentional deployment
cognitive change
response modulation
situation modification

2 Which is NOT a likely response to suppression of emotions?

increased blood pressure
heightened aggression
poor memory
feeling inauthentic
increased heart rate

Social Impacts


The human social experience is complex and individuals can have many roles with varying expectations and social norms (Matsumoto et al., 2008). The maintenance of in-group cohesion and harmony may require emotion suppression as a tool to adjust and adapt in varied social contexts (Matsumoto et al., 2008). This can lead to some positive consequences but there may be occasions where reducing or suppressing the expression of emotions during interactions with others is undesirable and negative (Butler et al., 2003). Suppression of emotions and expressive behaviour may be used to prevent conflict in a social setting, and can be seen as positively meeting social norms or relationship goals (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015). Even though there is some evidence that emotion suppression can be negative for the individual, it can also have positive social outcomes (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015). Imagine that you are having a discussion with your friend or partner and there is conflict about an issue, expressing anger at the time may not benefit the relationship, so in this case suppressing the expression of anger is likely to be the lesser of the two evils (Geisler & Schroder-Abe, 2015). Emotion suppression allows individuals to avoid needless friction in social encounters, work peaceably with others and verbalise anger or frustration rather than acting it out (Richards & Gross, 1999).

Expressive suppression over time however can see a disruption in the ability to communicate well, it may hinder the development of successful social bonds and impact the development of close relationships (Butler, 2003). The suppressor can misjudge conversations, incorrectly appraise a social situation and not respond authentically (Richards & Gross, 1999). When this occurs it may increase social isolation and weaken social bonds that keeps an individual engaged. Therefore self-restraint used sparingly may be suitable for social harmony in the short term, but prolonged or chronic use can create negative behaviour, poor subjective experience, unsatisfactory relationship outcomes and negative physiological responses (Butler et al., 2003). Also noted is that late adolescents and young adults who rely heavily on the use of suppression, find it more difficult to develop rapport with others to establish new relationships (De France & Hollenstein, 2019).


Figure 6. Cultural expectations can differ when is comes to expression of emotions.

The way that people express their emotions can differ across cultures. Some research shows the difference between the encouraging of emotion control in collectivistic interdependent eastern cultures, while free and open expression is common among western individualistic cultures (Soto et al., 2011). So that, European, American and Australian cultures that are individualistic value self expression and are open in social interactions. In contrast Asian cultures typically do not support the expression of emotions whether positive or negative with casual acquaintances (Butler, Lee, & Gross, 2009). Therefore they are more likely to suppress or mask emotions which may see an increased physiological response that accompanies emotion inhibition (Butler, 2009). However, over time this behaviour becomes normalised and ultimately the behaviour is ameliorated (Butler, 2009).

One study focussed on the blood pressure of participants, a key variable of the cardiovascular system which can be responsive to emotional changes. It found that emotion expression was inversely related to blood pressure for the European participants but positively related for the Asian cohort (Butler, 2009). So that when the Europeans expressed negative emotions at a sad movie their blood pressure shows smaller increases whereas those who were less expressive found their blood pressure rose (Butler et al., 2009)[grammar?]. Suggesting where suppression is normative behaviour adverse physiological functioning may not be present[grammar?].



Emotion suppression and related expressive behaviour suppression are strategies used to regulate emotions in daily life. These activities allow individuals to modify, adapt and respond appropriately to the environmental demands placed on them (Brockman et al., 2017). These strategies can be either adaptive or maladaptive rather than inherently good or bad, depending on the immediate and longer term effects on cognition, behaviour and affect (Brockman et al., 2017). Research has shown that it depends on the well-being of the person, the situation in which it is used and the goals of the person in the situation (Brockman et al., 2017). While emotion suppression can be useful it does come at a cost to physiology, cognition and relationships, therefore often seen predominantly as a maladaptive regulator (Brockman et al., 2017). Of course there are people who appear to be able to use emotion suppression as a tool to enhance greater emotional well-being but they seem to be small in number. While suppression may also be required as part of a cultural norm such that emotions do not disrupt important cultural systems, hierarchies, interpersonal relationships and social bonds (Matsumoto et al., 2008)[grammar?]. Whatever our strategies to manage life it seems that we generally experience less need for suppression the older we get.

See also



Brockman, R., Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P., & Kashdan, T. (2017). Emotion regulation strategies in daily life: mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal and emotion suppression. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy 46, 91-113.

Butler, E. A., Egloff, E., Wilhelm, F. H., Smith, N. C., Erickson, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2003). The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion 3, 48-67.

Butler, E. A., Lee, T. L., & Gross, J. J. (2009). Does expressing your emotions raise or lower your blood pressure?. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 40, 510-517.

Chapman, B. P., Fiscella. K., Kawachi, I., Duberstein, P., & Muennig, P. (2013). Emotion suppression and mortality over a 12-year follow-up. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75, 381-385.

De France, K., & Hollenstein, T. (2019). Emotion regulation and relations to well-being across the lifespan. Developmental Psychology 55, 1768-1774.

Geisler, F. C. M., & Schroder-Abe, M. (2015). Is emotion suppression beneficial or harmful? It depends on self-regulatory strength. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 553-562.

Germain, C. L., & Kangas, M. (2015). Trait anger symptoms and emotion regulation: The effectiveness of reappraisal, acceptance and suppression strategies in regulating anger. Behaviour Change 32, 35-45.

Gross, J. (2013). Emotion Regulation: Taking stock and moving forward. American Psychological Association, 13, 359-365.

Goss, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1993). Emotional Suppression: Physiology, Self-Report, and Expressive Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 970-986.1.

John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of Personality, 72, 1301-1333.

Keltner, D., & Gross, J. J. (1999). Functional accounts of emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 13(5), 467-480.

Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., & Nakagawa, S. (2008). Culture, emotion regulation, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 925-937.

Ohira, H., Nomura, M., Ichikawa, I., Isowa, T., Iidaka, T., Sato, A., . . . Yamada, J. (2006). Association of neural and physiological responses during voluntary emotion suppression. NeuroImage, 29, 721-733.

Quartana, P. J., & Burns, J. W. (2010). Emotion suppression affects cardiovascular responses to initial and subsequent laboratory stressors. British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 511-528.

Richards, J.M., & Gross, J. J. (1999). Composure at any cost? The cognitive consequences of emotion suppression. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 1033-1044

Soto, J. A., Perez, C. R., Kim, Y-H., Lee, E. A., & Minnick, M. R. (2011). Is expressive suppression always associated with poorer psychological functioning? A cross-cultural comparison between European Americans and Hong Kong Chinese. American Psychological Association, 11, 1450-1455.