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How emotional processing is used in therapy

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Emotional processing is the way that a person deals with a disturbing event occurring in the past or present. Most people are able to process these events to a point at which they are no longer troubling, and at which the person attains a level of calm concerning the event. Everyone has his or her way of dealing with unpleasant and traumatic events such as a death in the family, a serious accident, or a divorce. However, some events are so devastating or traumatic that the person may have difficulty in successfully processing or “working through” them. The effects of unsuccessful emotional processing may be manifest as an inability to talk about an event, a strong emotional response to the event, anxiety, depression, or the use of addictive substances.


Emotional processing therapy is a method used to help individuals discover their relationship with a disturbing event and gain the ability to “process” it effectively. The three main goals of this therapy are to help the individual discover his or her “style” of emotional processing, to help the individual discover any deficiencies in this style and develop more effective and fulfilling emotional processing, and to help the individual apply a more effective style in his or her life in order to resolve emotional issues.


The first step in emotional processing therapy is to identify the event that is causing the emotional distress. This may be challenging if the individual’s method of “processing” the event has been to “block it out” or deny that it ever occurred. After identifying the event, the therapist will work to identify the individual’s current method of dealing with the event (denial, down-playing the event, etc.). Once this has been identified, a tool known as the “emotional processing scale” can be used to hone in on the particulars of the individual’s emotional processing style. The scale consists of a 25-item questionnaire that identifies specific processing styles and the strengths and weaknesses of each one. With this additional information, the therapist can then help the individual recognize his or her processing style and work with them to develop a more open method of dealing with disturbing events. The individual will then learn to use this method to deal with the unprocessed emotional events in their life. As the individual gains more experience with this new way of processing disturbing events, he or she will gain a new understanding of the events themselves and of the realistic place they occupy in the individual’s life. The final step will be long-term as the individual applies the new method of emotional processing in everyday life, thus reducing the risk of additional, emotionally unprocessed events.


One of the important benefits of emotional processing therapy is its ability to help individuals recognize the connection between a disturbing event and the reason they feel as strongly as they do about it. The emotions they feel may be fear, anger and resentment, or worry, among others. This is the case for many who are working through the addiction recovery process. During recovery, an individual may be bombarded with strong emotions – emotions connected to events that started him or her down the path to addiction in the first place. It is the therapist’s task to help the individual identify the source of these strong emotions and process them to the point at which they can be managed. Unprocessed strong emotions experienced during recovery may result in poor decisions, or cause the individual to justify a return to addictive behavior. Even strong positive emotions may lead the individual to become overconfident and think there is no longer a problem.


A main goal of emotional processing therapy for those in recovery is the achievement of “emotional sobriety.” Emotionally “sober” individuals have learned to process any unresolved emotional events in their lives, and the emotions that go with them. They now have the ability to deal more effectively with strong emotions. They can live comfortably in the present, without fear of the future or guilt from the past. They can regulate their own behavior and have developed an optimistic view of life. More importantly for those working to regain their lives from addiction, they can establish meaningful relationships and have increased their ability to cope with life.

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