Understanding what leads to physical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, asthma, and cancer is imperative for their prevention. There is an abundant amount of research that demonstrates the link between negative mental health and physical illness. One aspect of psychological well-being that can be viewed negatively is the repression of feelings. Keeping distressful feelings and strong emotions inside can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and raise cortisol levels, all factors that can lead to CVD and other diseases. However, no study has focused solely on repression as a risk factor for physical disease. Marcus Mund of the Institute for Psychology at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Germany wanted to fill that void in literature.
Mund analyzed 22 separate studies and reviewed data from more than 6,700 participants. He looked at how repressive coping strategies affected physical health when compared to nonrepressive coping strategies and found that the participants who repressed their feelings were more likely to have hypertension than those who did not. Although Mund looked for studies about repression and diabetes, he found none and therefore focused on asthma, hypertension, CVD, and cancer. With respect to asthma, the evidence indicated that the repressors had a slightly higher risk than the nonrepressors, but Mund believes the lack of existing research on asthma and repression needs to be addressed. When he looked at cancer, Mund determined that repressors were more likely to have cancer than nonrepressors, but that the repressive coping was shown to be linked to cancer only after the diagnosis and did not predict the onset of cancer.
The findings of this study answer and ask several questions. First, because only clinically ill participants were studied, would the results be the same if healthy controls were included and the results were longitudinal? Second, people with asthma who used repressive coping may do so because they are instructed to monitor their breathing and heart rate in order to reduce the chance of having an attack. But does this influence the finding that there was only a slight increase in the repressors’ risks for asthma? Mund believes the findings presented here shed some light on the relationship between repression and illness, but more work needs to be done. “In sum, the results imply a significantly increased risk for repressors to suffer from one of the investigated diseases, especially cancer and elevated blood pressure or even hypertension,” he said.
Mund, Marcus, and Kristen Mitte. The costs of repression: A meta-analysis on the relation between repressive coping and somatic diseases. Health Psychology 31.5 (2012): 640-49. Print.
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