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Emotional Baggage and Cognitive Decline

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Blog Post by Oran Aviv

Cognitive decline and dementia are mainly attributed to damage or changes in the brain, but there may be other factors at play, particularly in older individuals. According to the Validation Method developed by Naomi Feil, some older people who have suppressed their emotions for years may struggle to continue to hide these emotions as they age. Failing to address and release emotional baggage throughout life may contribute to cognitive decline in older age and cause dementia.

Therefore it is important for everyone to address and learn how to release their emotional baggage before getting to an age when they can no longer keep their emotions hidden.

Can Suppressed Feelings Lead to Dementia?

We've all had moments when something upsets us and we become short-tempered with loved ones, coworkers, or even strangers. On the other hand, we've probably also experienced being on the receiving end when a family member or even a store clerk reacts excessively to a situation because they are venting their frustration on us. Anyone with an adolescent at home can surely relate to this!

Now imagine if you suppressed your feelings of frustration and anger for years, going about your daily life, working, raising a family, and being a good friend, but keeping all those difficult emotions locked up inside.

The cover-up might work for most of your life, but as you get older and reach your 80s and beyond, you may no longer be able to contain those hidden feelings. They may come pouring out like a tsunami, as one of my validation teachers from Austria, the wonderful Hildegard Nahum, once explained.

With her years of experience working with older adults with cognitive decline, Hildegard is familiar with War stories from WWII. Many parents lost children during the war, but had not time to grieve because they had to move on to help their families survive.

So when a family was complaining that their grandmother who had cognitive decline was destroying dish towels, because every night she would take two from the kitchen and bury them in the dirt, Hildegard asked if the grandmother had lost a child during the war.

Surprised, the family answered that yes, she had lost two children, but hadn’t talked much about it. Now that she can no longer repress her emotions, this older woman is grieving and burying her two dead children. Had this woman expressed her grief and feelings while she was younger, she may have not had this explosion of emotions when she was older that may have caused her cognitive decline.

Suppressed Emotions Lead to Anger and Blame

Have you ever been with someone who gets angry about a specific incident and brings up past events that have made them angry as well? It can be surprising how someone with age-related memory loss can still remember incidents that have strong emotional connections.

For example, a 90-year-old man who became angry with his daughter over a minor incident suddenly released 30 years of pent-up anger towards her, reminding her of things she had done when she was younger and blaming her for hurting him.

The daughter was so upset that she wanted to leave and never speak to her father again. At the time the daughter did not know, but this outburst of anger was due to this man's cognitive decline that eventually led to dementia.

It is possible that had the father addressed and released his emotions earlier, he might have been able to prevent his cognitive decline.

Expressing Emotions to Prevent Decline

One of the most important things a Validation Worker does, is listen and allow an older person to express their emotions, rather than redirecting them as is often done.

According to Naomi Feil, who developed the Validation Method, suppressing emotions and issues throughout life may contribute to cognitive decline in older age.

One of the key principles of the Validation Method is:

“Painful feelings that are expressed, acknowledged, and validated by a trusted listener will diminish.” “Painful feelings that are ignored or suppressed will gain in strength.”

This theory is supported by observations in Validation-certified homes in Germany, where individuals with dementia who are regularly listened to by certified Validation workers do not regress to a nonverbal state. (See Does Everyone with Dementia Withdraw?)

Although not always easy, because we prefer to see our clients and family members happy, it is important to allow older people to express their emotions in order to allow them to heal.

The Pain of Hiding Feelings

The pain of hiding feelings can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to open up about an embarrassing or painful incident, especially if you're afraid of being judged or of getting into trouble. Finding someone you trust to confide in can be incredibly helpful in easing that pain Take a moment to think about a time you hid your emotions. A personal example happened to me when I was young, but it is still one of the strongest of my memories from that age. I was always the “perfect” student when I was young. I followed all the rules and behaved well. One day in 4th grade as I was walking home from school, my homework flew out of my book and I chased it into the street to pick it up. One of the kids on school traffic patrol saw me, told me that running into the street on my own was dangerous and that he was going to report me to the principal.

I was so upset. I came home and didn’t tell my mother. The fear of getting in trouble was causing me pain and anguish inside.

Luckily my mother understood that something was wrong and asked my older sister to talk to me. I blurted out what happened and cried. I felt so much better after releasing my fear.

There can be many reasons why someone might choose to hide their emotions. Some possible reasons include:

Fear of being judged or rejected

Difficulty in expressing emotions

Social norms (expressing emotions may be considered unacceptable or weak)

Past trauma

Self-protection (Hiding emotions to protect oneself from further hurt)

Lack of trust

If you are hiding feelings, consider reaching out to someone you trust for support. Whether it's a friend, family member, religious leader, or professional, having someone who will listen with empathy and validate your emotions can help you release pent up emotions. In fact, this is a key part of what a validation worker does – they listen and allow people to express their emotions without judgment. Read The Importance of Empathy to learn more.

Below are several other ways to release pent up emotions.

Write and Burn

Writing and burning is a powerful way to release pent-up emotions. To start, find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted. Then, begin writing down whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar or structure.

It can be helpful to begin with something like "I have no idea what I should write, but this is the exercise I wanted to try." Just let the words flow without judging what you are writing. You may even write nonsense in the beginning. That’s OK, just keep writing and allow yourself to write about your emotions. .

If you can do this safely, you can burn the paper after you write down your pent up emotions. There is something very releasing about seeing the paper with all your emotions burn away. Otherwise you can tear up the pages and throw them straight into the outside trash bin so no one can read what you wrote.

It is important to write down what you are feeling with the understanding that no one will ever read what you write. This step is very important, because sometimes we want the person who has hurt us, especially if it is a family member. to see what we have written. However, the purpose of this exercise is to allow yourself to fully express your emotions without fear of judgment or consequences. You may be surprised by the strong emotions that come up as you write. I was once so surprised (read shocked) by the vulgar words I wrote that I would never have been capable of speaking. The anger that came up in that one exercise even scared me a bit, but those were deep emotions that I had held for years and I needed to let them go.

If you're concerned about your words being too harsh or vulgar, you can draw a frame around the margin of each page to contain the energy of those words. Write as much as you need to, and when you're finished, destroy the paper and release these emotions.

Punch a Pillow

Another way I have released pent up emotions is to hit a pillow. This method allows you to both physically and mentally release emotional baggage.

Again, find a place where you won’t be interrupted, and you won’t be embarrassed to raise your voice.

Find a nice big fluffy pillow and put it on a soft surface like a bed mattress. With your fist punch the pillow while saying something out loud that is bothering you. This is why it is important to place the pillow on a soft surface so you don’t hurt your hand!

You may want to direct your words towards someone who hurt you, a past trauma, a situation that was difficult or anything else that is causing an emotion to remain inside.

If you are not able to say the words out loud, begin by thinking the words and hitting the pillow. In time you may be able to say the words out loud.

I like this exercise because I can physically feel the release of emotions as I tire out punching the pillow. There are many other ways people can physically release their emotions. Some people like to hit or kick a punching bag and gardeners can use a shovel to dig a hole. Find a way that is safe and works for you.

Scream or Talk

When we scream, we may feel a sense of release as we let out pent-up energy and emotion, but of course t's important to be mindful of where and when we choose to scream, as it may not be appropriate in all situations and could disturb others.

When my kids were young, we used to visit a nearby nature reserve where the local train passed over a tunnel in the park. We would check the timetable of the train and stand under the tunnel a few minutes before the train was supposed to pass.

When the train came, we would all scream as loud as we could. It was fun, but it was also a way to release tension and emotions.

You do have to be careful how you scream so you don’t hurt your vocal cords, but it can be a good way to release of emotions.

There are also quieter ways to release pent up emotions. I once pretended I saw the person who had caused me distress in front of me and told them everything they had done that hurt me. Then I sent them off on their way along with the emotions that had been causing me stress. It worked.

In Summary - Failing to release emotional baggage throughout life may contribute to dementia in older people. By learning how to release our emotions today, we may be able to prevent cognitive decline when we get older.

Some possible ways to release pent up emotions are:

· Reach out to someone who will listen with empathy and validate your emotions

· Write down your emotions

· Hit a pillow while you say your emotions

· Scream or speak to release tension and emotions.

Our next free webinar will be on Jan. 9th, 2023

We all need touch, but sadly the people who need it the most, the older population, receive very little.

In this webinar we will discuss the importance of touch, how we can easily add more touch for the older population and how hand reflexology has helped people living with dementia. Touch can also be used for self-care to help both professionals and family members.

We will also share some of our findings from our pour work Teaching Live- in Caregivers Hand Reflexology that was presented at the International Alzheimer's Disease (ADI) Conference 2022 last June.

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