Suppressing Emotions in PTSD May Make Symptoms Worse

Suppressing Emotions in PTSD May Make Symptoms WorsePost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has gained more attention since the first Kuwait/ Iraq invasion some 20 years ago. During the intervening years, as war efforts have expanded into Afghanistan, the number of men and women dealing with this intense anxiety disorder has risen too. Soldiers with PTSD have been affected by a traumatic experience in such a way that even after they return home from active duty, memories of the event produce all sorts of trying symptoms. Soon the person may spend inordinate amounts of energy to avoid feeling anything as a way of escaping from the nightmare. Unfortunately, ignoring emotions can actually make their PTSD worse.

Avoidance is a key element of PTSD. Sufferers go to great lengths to stay away from anything that might trigger disturbing memories or emotions associated with the trauma of the past. The person does not want to talk about past events or even go places that might bring them to mind.  At the same time, the person may block out significant portions of the event from their conscious memory.

In fact, those with PTSD may try to avoid intense emotions of any kind – even ones that are unrelated to the trauma. Of course, feelings are things which usually come to all of us unbidden. When that happens, the person with PTSD often attempts to stuff those emotions – refusing to outwardly express the feelings that they are inwardly experiencing. If the feelings are strong, as is often the case for a person with PTSD, the effort required to suppress them can be considerable. Holding down and holding in strong emotions eventually leaves the person feeling drained and exhausted with little enthusiasm for life’s everyday activities.

The person may think that they are controlling their situation by taking control of their emotions in this way, but actually, they could be worsening their own condition. Emotions are part of the human persona for a reason. They serve a purpose; they are not just frosting on a cake.  Emotional expression is an important part of our coping capability. Emotions are pushing to get out. When we stifle them and push them down, they push back. All the while, the person with PTSD is becoming more agitated and edgy and they run the risk that one day the volcano will erupt with a vengeance.

A study was conducted through the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs which examined soldiers who were engaging in emotional avoidance and compared them to a group of soldiers receiving Cognitive Processing Therapy. Cognitive therapy, or cognitive appraisal, is a skill for acknowledging and handling emotions. The study showed that veterans who learned to appraise their emotions showed far fewer and less intense symptoms of PTSD compared to soldiers who did not receive training in the coping mechanism. In other words, emotions are unavoidable so the best medicine is to learn how to handle them.

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