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Emotional Conversations:
Can Hiding Your Feelings Make You and Your Partner Sick?

Emily Butler
Psychology Department
Stanford University
May 2001

Nearly everyone is concerned with staying physically and mentally healthy and with maintaining good quality relationships with other people. My research on emotional conversations addresses these concerns.

When two people have an emotionally intense conversation, they will experience subjective changes, such as becoming happier or sadder, and physical changes, such as becoming physiologically more relaxed or stressed. The relationship between the participants is also likely to change, becoming either closer or more conflicted. My research investigates the ways in which various strategies for controlling our emotions can influence all of these changes. Understanding these short-term changes is important because several lines of research suggest that if they occur repeatedly, they may cumulatively impact our psychological and physical health as well as our social relationships.

At first glance, many people think that they know how to optimally manage their emotions during conversations. Unfortunately, we are often faced with conflicting impulses, which leave us unsure about how to act. For example, should we "Let it all hang out" when we're upset, or should we "Put on a happy face?" Such conflicts are not surprising when we consider how complicated emotions are. Most researchers agree that what we call an emotion includes at least three components: a subjective feeling, such as feeling angry; a set of physiological changes, such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate; and expressive behavior, such as frowning. Emotional conversations may impact psychological and/or physical health through each of the three components.

Negative subjective states are a major aspect of most psychological disorders. Repeated social interactions that increase, or fail to decrease, the experience of negative emotions, may contribute to poor psychological health. In terms of physical health, some research suggests that repeated episodes of physiological arousal that go beyond the immediate metabolic requirements of the situation, may contribute to a wide variety of physical ailments. If this proves to be the case, then repeated social interactions that result in high physiological arousal due to emotion should have negative consequences for physical health.

Expressive behavior may play a particularly important role in health. Most researchers agree that the quantity and quality of the emotion we express can either increase or decrease the intensity of our subjective feelings and physiological reactions. Hence, the expression of emotion may modulate any health effects brought about by the other components of emotion. Despite general agreement on this issue, researchers disagree about which expressive behaviors lead to which effects.

Another complexity is that one person's expressive behavior can produce subjective feelings and physiological reactions in someone else, such as a conversational partner. If these effects are repeated over numerous conversations, then the first person's emotional expression could end up impacting their partner's psychological and/or physical well- being.

Finally, we know from epidemiological research that people who have strong social support networks live longer and have healthier lives than those people who are more isolated. Emotional expression, or the lack thereof, may play a role in the development and maintenance of relationships and this in turn may influence general well-being. Although associations between emotion and health appear repeatedly in the literature, what the processes involved are remains pure speculation. This is why an ongoing scientific study of emotional conversations is necessary; neither our common knowledge nor our current scientific understanding tell us how to optimally manage our emotions, despite the fact that doing so may have important health implications.

Obviously, "optimally" implies a standard against which to evaluate the management of our emotions, but both the goals and norms for emotional expression and experience are culturally and situationally specific. Nevertheless, within a culture and a situation we can ask what effects a given emotion regulation strategy has on the participants' subjective feelings, physiological arousal, and relationship with each other. If we are able to establish this information, we can then ask whether, and at what "dosage," a given strategy for controlling emotions has noticeable impacts on psychological and/or physical health. Finally, we could ask to what extent those effects generally compare to other cultures and situations.

Previous work in our lab has focused on North American individuals managing their emotions in non-interpersonal situations, such as watching emotional films while they are alone. We employ three types of outcome measures: the first includes various physical indices, such as heart rate and blood pressure; the second is expressive behavior, which is observed and recorded from videotapes (typical behaviors that we might record include smiling or frowning); and the third type of measure is self-report, in which we ask participants questions about such things as their emotional experience. The strength of this approach is that measuring the body, behavior, and the mind allows us to consider people in a very broad way.

One form of emotion regulation that we have studied is suppression, which involves hiding the emotions that one is feeling. Previous work in the lab has demonstrated that suppression of emotion results in increased physiological arousal as compared to other methods of controlling emotion. This could have health implications for a person who routinely hides their emotions since, as previously mentioned, being physiologically aroused on a regular basis may contribute to various forms of disease. In addition, suppression does not reduce the subjective experience of negative emotions. This suggests that suppression is an ineffective strategy for reducing emotional distress, and if employed on a regular basis, could contribute to chronic negative moods such as depression.

One limitation of this previous work is that it is based on people watching films by themselves, yet most of our intense emotional experiences occur in social situations. In a conversation, two peoples' emotional processes interact in a complex, dynamic system, raising the interesting possibility that one person's emotion regulation strategy may even impact their partner as well as themselves. It also raises questions about the effects of emotion regulation on the development and maintenance of relationships. Therefore, my current research addresses three main questions: 1) Does suppression increase physiological arousal and subjective distress in the person doing the regulating during a conversation? 2) Do the effects of suppression extend beyond the person doing the regulating, impacting their conversational partner as well? 3) Does suppression by one partner during a conversation inhibit the development of a friendship between the participants? To evaluate these questions I am employing the standard measures used in our lab, as described earlier, but am extending it to consider two-person interactions rather than isolated individuals.

As mentioned previously, the fact that there are cultural differences in emotional norms makes it necessary to start the investigation within a specific cultural context. Therefore, I initially hope to answer these questions in the case of North American women. I have chosen North American culture because it is immediately available, and I have chosen women because previous research shows that, in this country, women tend to be more emotionally expressive than men. This increased expressiveness may cause suppression to have larger effects. To go about answering my questions I am having unacquainted women come to the lab, watch a film together that has been demonstrated to be emotionally distressing to this population, and then discuss it. In half the pairs of women, one woman will secretly be asked to hide her emotions during the conversation. I expect that when this occurs it will be upsetting and physically stressful for both women. I also expect that it will result in reduced mutual attraction between the women, which decreases the likelihood that they would ever form a friendship.

If my predicted results are borne out, they will suggest several ways in which hiding emotions could have negative health consequences. First, hiding emotions could hamper the development of supportive relationships, which have been shown to be associated with positive health outcomes. Second, hiding emotions could turn conversations, the very heart of close relationships, into physically and psychologically stressful events for both participants. If this is the case, future research will be justified in order to investigate whether suppression is the "second hand smoke" of emotion regulation, at least for women. Repeated episodes in which one partner hides their emotions, with accompanying mental and physical distress experienced by both partners, could well put them both at risk for psychological and physical illness. Regardless of whether my hypotheses are borne out, the ongoing study of emotional conversations will contribute to a better understanding of emotional influences on health and social relationships.