In a World of Happy Posts — Why Expressing True Emotions is So Important

Dr. Delaney Ruston – In the spirit of  Mental Health Month, it is paramount that all kids know that mental health issues affect us all. Our emotional lives are so complicated. The pressure youth feel to exude certain feelings can be intense.

A significant portion of my book Parenting in the Screen Age is devoted to mental health issues and today I want to share one small section of the book. 

Here it is:

In an interview for Screenagers Next Chapter, a teen told me: 

“I remember n a time of my life where I wanted people to know that I was happy. Let me just show this to the entire world how happy I am. I would post over and over and over again until I almost believed it myself. When I obviously wasn’t very happy. But I wanted to be. I wanted to be happy so bad, but I just wasn’t.”

If a teen is upset about something, what will they do with that upset feeling? One thing they may do is called “down-regulating” the emotion, which is when someone tries to lessen a negative feeling by doing things to avoid feeling it. A person may do this to try to feel less negatively affected by the emotion — to both feel and try to look better than they really are. 

Researchers know that a downside is that suppressing feelings can hinder resolution, thereby extending the emotional pain. But they wondered how it could impact the person’s thinking abilities and cognitive processing.

James Grossman at Stanford has been conducting studies on this very question for over two decades.  He wanted to understand what happens when a person is told in a study to down-regulate their emotions — also called “suppressing” emotions.  What happens to that person’s cognitive abilities to process and recall the information?

In one of Grossman’s studies, participants were asked to watch an upsetting film showing a man getting into a motorcycle accident. Researchers told some of the participants before the film to suppress any emotional reaction they had to the film, and they told the other group not to suppress their emotional responses. 

They found that the participants told to suppress their emotions recalled far fewer details about the movie than those who were not instructed to suppress their emotions. Clearly, their brain had to actively suppress the emotions, leaving less brainpower to take in what was happening on the screen. 

From this study, another interesting cost of suppressing emotions was determined. It caused participants’ blood pressure to rise higher than the control group, who had been free to express their emotions. Stress-related increase in blood pressure is taxing for the body and is associated with problems such as heart disease. A fascinating additional finding was that not only did their blood pressure go up, but when they had to explain the film to someone else, (while still suppressing any emotions the film may have caused them) the person they were talking to had an elevation in their own blood pressure, which was not the case for the control groups. The researchers do not know why these people experienced elevated blood pressure, but it might be that they were sensing the tension in the other person — whether consciously or subconsciously — and this led to the observed rise. 

James Grossman told me in an interview: 

“What we found in laboratory studies and in the field is that when people try to use suppression, they can look cool, but they don’t feel cool. And furthermore, their thinking process is slowed down. So if you give people information while they’re suppressing, they don’t remember it as well. So if I’m a teenager and I’m really upset about something that a friend of mine said or something that happened at home, and if I’m trying to suppress that emotion, that may make me so busy cognitively that I can’t really pay attention to what the teacher is saying or what the homework is all about. And if you add that up day after day it can mean very, very different trajectories academically.”

There is no question that with the increased exposure to media on devices, our youth are growing up with far more ideals of beauty, handsomeness, and ways to act or express oneself than ever before.

Suppression can, of course, be very advantageous at times. Say a person is feeling a lot of anger, and they start lashing out at someone. It most likely would be much more effective to step away and start breathing and thinking about calming down, to lessen the intensity of the emotions and not just act from that emotional place.

Here are some ideas about what parents can do:

Discuss media and video game literacy

Talking about the ways males and females are displayed in shows regarding expectations about emotions is so important, more so now than ever. Start with the shows and videos they watch. 

I recall how frustrated I was that my son was so glued to the series “Arrow”, which is about a superhero — who of course never talks about feelings or shows any emotions. The whole idea of a male hero who is stoic beyond belief consumed him.

I worked to stay calm and to ask him questions about his take on the superhero and how he felt about the messages the show was sending. It was useful to ask what he thought a younger kid would learn from it. So, if Chase was 11, I might ask, “What do you think an 8-year-old might take away from the show about what it means to be a real man?” 

Media literacy also must include video games that now contribute hours of messaging to our kids and teens about emotionless males. In games, many people are killed, and yet there are no emotions expressed and no negative consequences shown (other than perhaps losing a round). 

Discuss social media literacy

Ask your kids questions like how often they think a person’s post aligns with their true emotional life. Teens tell me often that when they are not feeling good, they purposely post photos where they look good in the hopes of getting lots of likes, so as to boost their mood. This may help in some ways, and yet there can be downsides. 

Discuss helpful and unhelpful suppression of challenging emotions

Using a story from my life is something I often do with my kids when it comes to issues around feelings. For example, I might share with them how when I am on a call discussing a questionable bill, my frustration with the person on the other end can quickly mount (in part because I was waiting twenty minutes to finally speak with someone). I work very hard to suppress my frustration because it is not at all my goal to let my feelings out on this person. In that way, I am glad to be regulating my emotions. 

Take a different scenario. I am working at my medical clinic and I’m feeling emotional about a conflict I am having with my husband. I work to suppress my emotions so I can provide the best medical care possible. I soon recognize that I am really having a hard time concentrating so at lunch, I call him. I get to express my feelings, we work things out, and when I get back to see another patient, I can focus much better. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. What ways does our screen world promote hiding true emotions?
  2. What do common messages in shows and video games convey about what and when it is appropriate for girls to express emotions? How about for boys?
  3. Can you recall being upset at school, having to hold it together, and finding it was really hard to concentrate?
  4. When was the last time you told someone about your emotions and felt it was helpful?