We face a lot of stressors that negatively affect our day-to-day life. While some face them head-on, some might tend to downplay them entirely to prevent themselves from experiencing any kind of negative feeling.
Dr Ali Khwaja, counsellor, and chairman of Banjara Academy cites an example of the second type: A very successful middle-aged professional suddenly lost his job following a take-over of his company. He hid this fact from everyone and would dress up and leave home for “office” every day. He would even talk vociferously about what he does in office, and how he handles his team.
This type of coping style is called repressive coping. Happiest Health talks to mental health experts to understand what this mechanism is all about.
Brushing it under the carpet — Understanding repressive coping?
Any stimulus that turns on one’s hypervigilant and anxious mode could be a stressor (like an intense argument). And each one of us reacts differently to such situations. We either tend to have our defenses up (defense mechanism), or we try to address it (coping mechanism).
Coping mechanisms are conscious choices individuals make to tackle such stressors. “The expected healthy coping is to face the problems head-on. In unhealthy and impaired coping strategies such as repressive coping, people tend to downplay or deny the problem to avoid exposing themselves,” says Dr Jini K Gopinath, chief psychological officer at YourDOST.
Dr Khwaja explains repressive coping as “a habit or tendency wherein a person suppresses at the emotional or cognitive level whenever negative experiences take place, because they do not want their self-esteem or image to be damaged among others”. In this type of coping, the individual avoids feeling and acknowledging any kind of negativity associated with a setback.
People who exhibit repressive coping prefer not to bother their loved ones or others with their problems as they feel they have everything under control when they do not.
More common in men than women
Now that we understand what this kind of coping is, why do some people resort to it? It is dependent on upbringing, overall emotional state, and social desirability. While both men and women may have repressive coping tendencies, it is more common in men and can lead to several problems if not addressed in time.
Men are programmed to be macho, winners and in control of their lives, which could be the reason that this type of coping is more common among men, says Dr Khwaja. “For some men it becomes difficult to admit, even to themselves, that they have ‘failed’ in anything they do. They feel they may face ridicule and people may look down upon them” he adds.
Not experiencing emotions greatly affects mental health
When researchers looked at parameters of anxiety such as disrupted speech, reaction time, and facial expressions, they found that repressors show greater anxiety levels compared to less anxious individuals. Dr Khwaja says that if repressive coping is not addressed immediately the effects can veer into dangerous territory with men taking rash decisions, getting into addiction, becoming reclusive, and even spoiling family relationships.
This type of coping detaches individuals from uncomfortable issues, which prevent them from learning how to cope with situations effectively or from seeking proper help.
What affects the mind shows up in the body
Any kind of distress to the mind can manifest in the body as a psychosomatic illness. Many studies have looked at how repressors claim lesser negative effects to distress, than non-repressors. However, their increased heart rates may say otherwise. Investigators found that repressors physiologically react the same way or more anxiously than those who express chronic distress.
Repressors may not realise it, but such coping can lead to physical symptoms including hypertension, ulcers, sometimes even cognitive impairment. The more they feel the need to keep up their appearance and image, the greater the stress, which can accumulate over time. Scientists say, when exposed to stress, repressors have increased blood pressure, and cholesterol levels (also seen in hypertension and cardiovascular diseases).
Repressors show bodily reactions that are not in line with the perceived distress. Psychologists say that repressors have some form of “biopsychological decoupling” where they dissociate their bodily reactions from their feeling of stress.
Helping men tackle it
The first step to addressing repressive coping is to understand and name feelings and emotions. Allowing men to openly talk about feelings, educating them, bringing in awareness and making them understand that vulnerability is not a weakness also help with reducing such impaired coping.
“Teaching him healthy coping ways, like relaxation, communication skills, procrastination management and addressing thought patterns, will help with making him more confident,” says Dr Gopinath. In certain cases, psychologists may also use more intensive techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnosis to help men understand their emotions better.
Men need to unlearn a lot of things that society has instilled in them.