Authentic Self-Expression and Health

Cancer Rates and Emotional Suppression

Medical researchers Dr. Keith Pettingale and Dr. Steven Greer performed psychological testing at the start of a prospective study of 160 women with breast lumps, prior to biopsy. Both patients and physicians were blinded to which women would turn out to have malignant tumors. Of the 160 women, the biopsies of sixty-nine of them came back positive for cancer. When they cross-referenced the psychological tests, Pettingale and Greer discovered that 50 percent of the women diagnosed with malignant tumors were deemed to engage in extreme emotional suppression, as determined by psychological evaluation prior to getting the bad news. Many claimed to have never gotten angry in their entire adult lives. Not one of the 69 women whose biopsies were positive for cancer had actually expressed anger more than twice in her adult life. 

These findings could easily be misunderstood because expression of extreme anger or rage is often a smoke screen for more authentic and vulnerable feelings that underlie the emotion actually being expressed. The kind of anger that is healthy to express is an authentic emotion, usually expressed in an assertive rather than aggressive way. Assertiveness is often mistaken for aggressiveness, but while the former is associated with authenticity and health, the latter is associated with experiential avoidance of thoughts, sensations, and emotions—not to mention with especially high rates of cardiovascular disease. Anger that is expressed in a raging, aggressive way comes out of feelings of insecurity, which is orthogonal to self-efficacy, whereas anger that is expressed assertively is a mark of self-efficacy and mastery.

Dr. Greer and another of his colleagues,

Cancer researcher Dr. Tina Morris

performed psychological testing at the start of another prospective study of cancer patients. In this study, the women who tested highest in emotional suppression later turned out to have the highest rates of cancerous tumors while those who tested lowest on emotional suppression had the highest rate of benign ones. And anger was not the only emotion the women with cancer suppressed; they had been suppressing all their negative emotions throughout their adult lives. Dr. Morris and her team replicated this study six years later and found the same results. This important research helps explain the nature of the connection between emotional suppression and cancer. It appears that the suppression of anger or any other emotion does not cause disease. Rather, emotional suppression may well be an indicator of low self-esteem, feelings of shame, lack of mastery, poor social skills, and alexithymia (inability to express any feelings in words)—all of which have been associated with poorer health.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, these types of studies are based on statistics. These particular statistics focused on emotional expression and suppression. Because of so many other variables, there are plenty of women diagnosed with breast cancer who are masters of authentic self-expression, and conversely, there are plenty of women who never get any form of cancer, despite living with considerable emotional suppression.

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