One of the most recognizable facial expressions is disgust: the expression displayed by an individual who is exposed to a nauseating image or horrifying story. But what happens when this emotion is not expressed? When the person keeps a straight face – either intentionally or unintentionally – and pretends that nothing is wrong?
As Judith Grob discovered, such people experience more negative emotions. ‘They look at the world with negative eyes because they cannot get rid of their feelings of disgust by expressing them. A botox treatment also has an effect on emotional experience, therefore, and not on wrinkles alone’.
Grob will receive her PhD on 19 March 2009 at the University of Groningen.
It is not always advisable to give free rein to one’s emotions. A laughing fit during a funeral is regarded as highly inappropriate, as is a loud quarrel in a restaurant. In such situations, it is wise to regulate one’s emotions, the more so because this is socially desirable. But it is not sensible to suppress feelings habitually, says Grob: ‘Previous research had already revealed that people who often suppress their emotions tend to be less healthy’.
The suppression of disgust in particular has negative consequences, Grob discovered, even in people who are not aware that they are no longer capable of expressing it ‘because their facial muscles have been paralysed by a botox treatment, for example’. People who express their disgust feel this emotion more intensely for a short period and then think a lot about related subjects. ‘However’, says Grob, ‘when they find themselves in a new situation, the feeling has completely disappeared. This means that they are no longer bothered by it’.
Subjects who were asked to suppress their disgust when shown images of, for example, a dirty toilet or a film depicting an amputation were able to do so. ‘But the emotion then found its way into the open through other channels’, says Grob. ‘At the cognitive level, they began to think about disgusting things much more often and also felt much more negatively about other issues. The same phenomenon occurs in a situation where you are not allowed to think of something, say a white bear. Precisely because you are trying to suppress that thought, it becomes hyperaccessible’.
It is interesting that this negative spiral is evident with both conscious and unconscious suppression. ‘We asked some subjects to hold a pen between their lips without telling them the reason. The pen specifically inhibited the facial muscles that people use to express disgust. The same pattern of effects was found in these subjects as in the subjects who suppressed their emotions consciously’. The negative consequences of suppression are thus attributable to suppressed muscles and not to suppressed thoughts.
Paralysing facial muscles
People who view the world with negative eyes experience more negative emotions. ‘If they also suppress these emotions, they will soon enter a negative spiral. This is something to take into account in a society where more and more people allow their facial muscles to be paralysed by botox treatments for the sake of beauty’, says Grob.
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