Month: November 2013

Emotions in therapy (and life!)

Many times, people come in to therapy because their emotions become overwhelming. They might be too strong, pop up inconveniently or in the wrong circumstances.

Other people come in due to not being able to feel much of anything at all (feeling numb). Or maybe they’re not feeling enough under certain circumstances.

In any case, emotions are often one of the most problematic aspects of being human. It’s quite common to experience the emotion of frustration towards one’s other emotions! What are these things, why do they act of their own accord and what are they doing? Most of all, how do we get them to be more manageable?

Basically, emotions are our experience of our survival energies. They are trying to be our friend: they motivate us towards things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us. Ideally, that is; they are often led astray, but that’s a topic for another time.

Emotions are made of physical sensations PLUS the limbic (middle) brain’s interpretation of those symptoms. Some examples of sensations are tightness, tension, churning (stomach), tingling, relaxation, opening, spaciousness, temperature, pressure, and the sensations of the facial muscles of a facial expression. Sensations can also include a subjective sensation of energy moving in the body, e.g. a sinking or uplifting feeling.

It’s interesting to note that the same sensation (e.g., excitement) can be interpreted in different ways by the limbic brain.  Example:  Racing pulse plus shallow breath plus “butterflies” in stomach = anxiety/dread (just prior to a test or exam), OR infatuation/positive anticipation (calling someone to ask them on a date).

Emotions become a problem when they become excessive to the situation, or subjectively overwhelming. When they are overwhelming over a long period of time, or extremely intense, they tend to become frozen or numb. This numbness can sometimes be experienced only in regard to specific events/emotions; other people experience a more general, overall lack of emotion. Such an emotional shutdown is a survival mechanism. However, once the numbness wears off, the original emotions are still there, often with increased (excessive) intensity.

An emotion experienced in a healthy way will rise, then relax on its own, in a wave-like motion.  The person will feel it, sometimes strongly; but it won’t be overwhelming, and it will resolve, and be complete. On the other hand, emotions that are stuck, overwhelming, or don’t seem to resolve, often create distress and/or interfere with the person’s functioning.

Somatic Experiencing works with the person’s thoughts, life experiences, sensations, emotions, behaviors, and images to help the body work through its backlog of stuck emotions in a gentle and manageable way. SE uses titration (exposure to manageable amounts) and pendulation (moving in and out of the emotion) to create a gentle and effective way of working with emotions, so they can be released and the person can move on with their life.

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