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Relevance of emotional processing to psychological therapy
Reprint of article ‘Emotional processing model for counselling and psychotherapy:
‘a way forward’ from Counselling in Primary Care
Catharsis venting and the talking cure
Core components for an emotion therapy
Is behaviour therapy really emotion therapy in disguise?
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The hydraulic model of emotions seems to be endorsed by many counsellors and psychotherapists and regarded as a truth in western culture but rejected by many experimental psychologists (Evans 2001, Kennedy-Moore & Watson 1999). It is the idea that emotional distress or arousal is like water moving along pipes. The water levels can build up or be stored and can create pressure at other points in the system. Unpleasant experiences can be bottled up and create discomfort. Their release reduces the discomfort. It is virtually synonymous with the idea of the movement of energy or the transfer of energy from one point of the mind to another. Catharsis is often viewed as the release of energy or the spurting out of water, which reduces the pressure of the ‘bottled up’ emotions. The hydraulic metaphor is often attributed to Freud. Nicols & Zax (1977), in reviewing cathartic therapies, distinguished two types of understanding; ‘somatic emotional approaches’ such as Reichian therapy, Janov’s ‘primary scream’ or Lewen’s ‘bioenergetics’ which rely on the notion of stored energy or power. Guinagh (1987) refers to this as employing a ‘container’ model. The other approach, cognitive-emotional catharsis, does not simply rely on the re-experience of traumatic emotions but the recall and recasting of traumatic memories. Three recent reviews of the psychotherapeutic process conclude that the release of emotion by itself is ineffective in terms of psychotherapy outcome without cognitive change or cognitive reconstruction (Samoilov & Goldfried 1999, Bohart 1980, Welton 2004).
In the following passage from Freud’s ‘Selected Papers on Hysteria’ Freud offers an explanation of how powerful unresolved emotions can exert their influence over an individual:
“It would seem at first rather strange that long forgotten experiences should exert so intensive an influence and that their recollections should not be subject to the decay into which all our memories sink. We will perhaps gain some understanding of these facts by the following examinations.
The blurring or loss of an affect of memory depends on a great many factors. In the first place, it is of great consequence whether there was an energetic reaction to the affectful experience. By reaction we here understand a whole series of voluntary or involuntary reflexes ranging from crying to an act of revenge through which, according to experience, affects are discharged. If the success of this reaction is of sufficient strength, it results in the disappearance of a great part of the affect. Language attests to this fact of daily observation in such expressions as ‘to give vent to one’s feelings’, to be ‘relieved by weeping’ etc. If the reaction is suppressed, the affect remains united with the memory. An insult retaliated, be it only in words, is differently recalled than one that had to be taken in silence … the reaction of an injured person to a trauma has really only then a perfect ‘cathartic’ effect if it is expressed in an adequate reaction like revenge. But more likely man finds a substitute for this action in speech through which help the affect can well-nigh be ab-reacted (abreagirt).”
Clearly, Freud did not see emotions as being stored, nor regards emotional expression per se as the core aspect of abreaction during psychotherapy. What is problematic is the stored affect laden memory. Lutz (1999) in his review of catharsis summarises this position with clarity.
“The emotions we feel as we relive past experiences are simply a coming to consciousness of one’s desires. We cannot feel the same emotions because they are long gone. Emotions cannot be stored for years in our bodies, waiting to reappear, like a virus or bottled up carbonation. We might cry, of course, in a way very similar to the way we cried when our desires were first frustrated, but not because the tears have been waiting somewhere inside us during the intervening years. We cry because the events or the desires still invoke powerful feelings when they are remembered or recognized, in part because our understanding of the events has not evolved.”
Whether or not one agrees with the notion that every frustration and hurt has to be expressed, many writers converge in the view that significant distress may be suppressed, repressed or otherwise inadequately emotionally processed (Greenberg & Rice 19??, Kennedy-Moore & Watson 1999, Taylor, Bagby & Parker 1999). “One relives the past in catharsis” says Eugene Gendlin (1996) “just as it actually happened but with the great difference that one expresses and finally feels emotions that were blocked at the time. To some extent this happens in all therapy.”
See article “Look back in anger” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3569250.stm