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Statistics Identify large populations of Adoptees in prisons, mental hospitals and committed suicide.
Fifty years of scientific studies on child adoption resulting in psychological harm to the child and
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Medical and psychological attempts to heal the broken bonds of adoption, promote reunions of biological parents and adult children. The other half of attempting to repair a severed Identity is counselling therapy to rebuild the self.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Exploring Emotions and Emotional Processing
Emotions & EMOTIONAL PROCESSING In Adoptee's
Exploring emotions and emotional processing:
I used to believe that my feelings were directly linked to The Truth, both internal and external. That my emotions were like a litmus test on Reality. That all I needed to do was tune in to my feelings, and the Answers would emerge.
Well, no, that’s not how it actually works:
Emotions are way more complex, and they need to be interpreted, not simply obeyed in raw form. See Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book,How We Decide, for a thorough discussion on how to interpret and integrate emotional messages.
The emotional system is delicate, and Life is rough. Like any fine, precision instrument, harsh treatment can put our emotions out of whack. And Life isn’t gentle! Chances are good that, like the car alarm that goes off when a leaf falls on the hood, your emotional system might become mis-calibrated and hyper-sensitive. Read Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon for some excellent perspectives on emotional wear-and-tear, especially in people with sensitive and/or depressive tendencies.
Thinking and feeling are NOT separate. In fact, they are inextricably linked. Antonio Damasio’s classic, Descartes' Error, explains how rational thought emerges out of emotions. Some people seem, like Mr. Spock from StarTrek, to “think too much” and to “not have any feelings,” but in fact those people’s cognitive abilities come from high emotional sensitivity.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Some people are way more emotionally expressive than are others. It’s often the MOST sensitive and emotionally tuned-in folks who don’t show it on the outside.
Have you ever wondered why talking can affect your emotions?…why therapy works (after all, it’s just words!)…why information (including mis-information; stuff you mis-understood which wound up being false) can make you feel so good or so bad? If thinking and emotions weren’t linked, then information wouldn’t have an impact on our feelings.
The good news is, understanding the link between thinking and feeling helps put both under your control, and makes them less overwhelming and scary.
The concept of emotional processing was first introduced by Rachman in 1980 who put it forward as a promising explanatory concept with particular relevance and application to the anxiety disorders. In 2001, Rachman restated the concept and applied it to post traumatic stress disorder.
Rachman (1980) used the term emotional processing to refer to the way in which an individual processes stressful life events. He defined emotional processing as:
“a process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed, and decline to the extent that other experiences and behaviour can proceed without disruption” (p. 51).
He noted that, for the most part, people successfully process the majority of aversive events that occur in their lives. Indeed, if individuals were unable to absorb or “process” emotional disturbances, then they would operate at a constantly high level of arousal with so much intrusion from their feelings that it would be difficult to concentrate on the daily tasks of living. Rachman argued that if emotional experiences were incompletely absorbed or processed then certain direct signs of this failure would appear, for example, the return of fears, obsessions and intrusive thoughts. Excessive avoidance or prolonged and rigid inhibition of negative emotional experiences would prevent their reintegration and resolution. This may not matter for the smaller everyday hassles, which are part of normal experience but could result in disturbances of behaviour and experience if the person faces more serious negative life events.
Rachman (2001) acknowledged that it is much easier to specify inadequate emotional processing than successful emotional processing.
“As all of this suggests, it is easier to come to grips with failures of emotional processing than with successes. Broadly, successful processing can be gauged from persons’ ability to talk about, see, listen to or be reminded about the significant events without experiencing distress or disruptions.”(pp. 165)
Emotional processing refers to a gradual reduction of emotional responding over time. According to Rachman successful emotional processing is indicated when there is a return to “undisrupted behaviour after an emotional disturbance has waned”.
One of the inherent difficulties with such a definition is the issue of how long a period of ‘undisrupted behaviour’ must ensue before one can conclude that emotional processing is complete. To address this Rachman (1980;2001) advocates the use of ‘test probes’. The rationale is as follows: After an emotional disturbance the extent of emotional processing can be ascertained by presenting relevant stimulus materials in an attempt to re-evoke the emotional reaction. For example, someone who has suffered the loss of a significant other would be reminded about or asked to speak about the dead person. If they still respond with an intense emotional reaction then it can be assumed that satisfactory emotional processing has not taken place.
However, whilst this provides a means of inferring whether or not ‘adequate’ emotional processing has occurred it tells us little about the underlying mechanisms involved.
It is understandable that Rachman should define emotional processing in terms of objective, observable behaviour but it remains something of a 'black box' explanation in which the central element - the processing itself - is missing.
The concept of processing is well used in psychology. Based on a PsyInfo search of the word 'processing' in psychology journal articles or journal titles from 1887 to 2004, 'processing' is used 82,425 times and is mentioned in the titles of 14,216 articles. In the psychological literature there are significant numbers of references to the following types of processing - information, cognitive, visual, auditory, language, word, phonological, memory, perceptual, face, parallel, sensory, stimulus and signal as well as emotional processing. The shared meaning would appear to centre around psychological processes or mechanisms which are used to convert a stimulus (auditory, information, memory, face) to a mental state, usually a more settled state, such as understanding the meaning of a word, recognising a face, absorbing or storing a memory, often converting stimuli into psychological meaning.
In emotional processing, this would refer to the psychological, psychophysiological and psychoneurological mechanisms by which distressed emotional reactions in individuals are converted or changed to non distressed reactions. The word 'process' derives from the old French 'procés' from the Latin 'processus' as meaning 'advancing' and is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as:
A series of actions directed to achieving a result or condition
A method of doing or producing something
A forward movement
A course of time
Focussing on the key element of how an emotional experience changes would capture a core meaning of 'processing'.
Enhanced definition of emotional processing
So we suggest the definition of emotional processing is essentially that of Rachman ie 'a process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed and decline to the extent that our experiences can proceed without disruption' but should also include the study of the psychological, psychoneurological and psychophysiological mechanisms by which this change or 'absorption' occurs.
This would include studying psychological mechanisms which may impede processing and the mechanisms by which psychological therapies can enhance processing.
These definitions of emotional processing are mostly negative in emphasis - how disturbing events and reactions are processed rather than how neutral or positive events are processed. For negative emotional states such as anxiety, grief and anger, it is clear what needs to be changed or absorbed. For positive emotional states is is less clear what needs to be changed.
How Emotions Work There have been debates in many disciplines for centuries about how emotions work. Some new work has attempted to synthesize all of these understandings (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Basically it goes like this:
1) We have contact with a stimulus (an event, object, situation, sensation, or thought).
2) We pay attention to this stimulus.
3) We have an interpretation of the stimulus.
4) We have an emotional/physiological reaction to the stimulus.
For an example of this process, imagine you were having a fun day at the zoo, but you suddenly saw an escaped gorilla roaring and charging toward you. Instantly, you would have a burst of adrenaline, a dramatically increased heartbeat, and you would run, possibly scream, and focus all attention on finding safety. Basically 1) you had contact with a charging gorilla, 2) you paid attention to it, 3) you easily interpreted it as a threat, and 4) you had a fear response.
In the 4th step, the reaction includes instant changes in the body in alertness, respiration, facial expression, heart rate, digestion, muscle tension, release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters, and a variety of other things. It also includes impulses to approach, avoid, flee, attack, freeze, submit, shut down, laugh, or celebrate, among many others, depending on what the stimulus is.
Furthermore, some emotions are instinctual responses, like what would happen with a gorilla charging you. However, emotions can also arise automatically after we have been conditioned to have certain responses. For example, say you were chased by the gorilla in the above scenario. What would happen next time you someone asked you to go to the zoo? You would likely get anxious and want to avoid going because your memory of being chased, and therefore you now have a conditioned (learned) fear response.
Sometimes emotions and a stimulus (like the zoo) can be paired even without actually experiencing it for ourselves, like when we are taught something, watch someone else go through it, or even just image it. An example would be a high profile story and video that you saw of people being chased at the zoo.
What Emotions Are There? Another widely debated concept in psychology is whether there are a handful of “basic” or “primary emotions” that underlie everything (seeking, fear, rage, grief/panic, lust, care, play, etc) or if emotions are much more complex, and better seen though a set of open dimensions (positive/negative, activating/deactivating, approach/avoid). Like a lot of things in psychology, I think that a greater truth lies in blending perspectives. So I think it is important to have our unique individual experience of emotions, while knowing that many of our experiences are not limited to a finite set of primary emotions.
Emotion Regulation Styles Going back to the 4 part process of emotions allows us to understand a variety of ways of dealing with experiencing them. The following is a quick summary of the ways we can do this, and I’d encourage you to become a master of each of them.
1. Choose the situation: basically we can take some kind of action to make it more or less likely that we will end up in a situation that causes a type of emotional experience. If you didn’t want to possibly experience a gorilla charging at you, it might be best to avoid the zoo. Instead you could go see a movie about animals that would provide you a more positive emotional experience.
2. Modify the situation: this is when we are already in the situation but try to modify it somehow to alter its emotional impact. If you were already at the zoo, you could wait until the gorillas were done eating for the day, or make sure there was someone less capable of running between you and their cage.
3. Shift your attention: this is when we change our attention focus related to the event or object. Distractionfocuses attention on different aspects of the situation, or moves attention away from the situation altogether, whereas concentration draws attention to emotional features of a situation. If you were already afraid of gorillas, you could focus on the trees in the enclosure instead of the animals. If you had a lot of joy seeing gorillas (like I do), you might really concentrate on their playful behavior as a way to have a more emotionally positive experience.
4. Change your perspective: this is when we change how we appraise (evaluate) the situation we are in to alter its emotional power. The two main ways of doing this are to change our perspective (being charged by a gorilla and surviving is actually kind a pretty cool experience) or change our views of dealing with it (if I did get charged, I would be able to handle it).
5. Manage your reaction: this is what we do after we already have the emotion and try to influence the physiological or behavioral responding as directly as possible. Ideally we want these to be adaptive (healthy for us, and also fit into the situation appropriately). For example, if you were trying to impress a new date who wanted to go to the zoo, you might have to find a way to play it cool in front of the gorilla enclosure by using a discrete breathing technique.
Processing Emotions Most people in counseling are searching for ways to manage their feelings better. So I developed a 5-step tool to help understand emotions. The main process was developed by researchers Kennedy-Moore and Watson, in their bookExpressing Emotion (2001). Over the years I have modified this to be more practical for anyone to use on their own. At each step I will identify the common places people make mistakes in the process, and offer some things that can help. The basic idea here is that when you are feeling something, you can pause right then, and work through these five steps, correcting things along the way.
1. Sensing The building blocks of emotions are in the physical sensations and automatic impulses we have. Therefore, the first step is to scan your body and identify the types of sensations and motivations you are having. Is your stomach turning? Is your jaw clenched? Is there a lump in your throat? Is your face flush? One mistake people make is skipping over this step entirely, which leaves us somewhat out of tune with our body.
Another is when we deny that the sensations exist, or assume them to be something other than part of an emotional experience, like saying “I’m just tired”. Research done in 2012 has now mapped the ways our bodies respond during specific emotions, and you can see the chart of that at the end of this post.
2. Naming Once you have the physical feelings down, it is important to accurately name the emotion. The mistakes people make here are mislabeling the emotion, or using generic words that do not get it exactly right. For example, using words like “weird”, “upset”, or “bothered” all have a variety of ambiguous meanings. There is more power and more ability to work with the emotion when using words like “anxious”, “sad”, or “angry” instead.
Additionally, we often have blends of several emotions at a time, or conflicting emotions, which makes this part even more difficult. Having a good emotional vocabulary is an important part of this, so check below for a large list of emotion words. People I know who have this mastered will say things like “I am feeling a blend of righteous indignation and that worried sensation you have when you are running late for a the airport.”
3. Attributing After you have the right name, it is key to accurately determine what caused it. Sometimes this is obvious, whereas other times emotions seem to “come out of nowhere” or “for no reason”. Emotions are almost always triggered by something, but the triggers may be unknown to us. A common explanation for emotions coming “out of nowhere” is that the emotion was present, but was only consciously experienced when there was space for it, like when doing a mindless task, or taking a familiar drive.
A mistake people make in this step is attributing the emotion exclusively to one thing. For example, say a man that just had an argument with his partner became enraged in traffic. In this step, we’d say that the anger was immediately provoked by the traffic, but the strength of the emotion is likely due to anger that is related to the earlier argument. Furthermore, not sleeping enough, being hungry, or a variety of other things can also contribute.
4. Evaluating In this step we ask ourselves how we feel about having the emotion. We all have different answers to this based on our identity, culture, and comfort with certain emotions. For example, someone may feel perfectly comfortable being angry, but feel very uncomfortable feeling sad. I often hear my clients say things like “I’m angry that I’m angry.” This extra feeling means that the intensity of the emotional experience has dramatically increased because discomfort, shame, or something else has been added to sadness.
Basically, things can get really complicated here if we do notaccept or value the emotions that we are experiencing. In counseling I generally promote the idea that all of our emotions are valid and have value, even if it is just a signal that something is happening within us, or in the world. Judgment can be reserved for our actions related to our emotions (step 5), but spare the emotions themselves, and instead work to accept that they are there, they are innate parts of the human experience, and have a purpose.
5. Acting After all of this is complete, we are left with choices about how to proceed. When we have a flash of a very strong emotion the action will often just happen. But for emotions that linger or come and go in lower doses, we get to decide whether and how we will express the emotion, and/or how to cope with it. The key here is that if we think ahead about what kind of action to take, we can avoid making mistakes in our lives based on flares of emotion. Developing a set of coping strategies is also important for this step, and something I have written about here, here, and here.
Experiencing a Lot of One Emotion I have a lot of clients that are looking for help dealing with one predominant emotion in their lives, usually anxiety or anger. Part of counseling is about learning to use those emotions for their intended purpose as well as control them, but the other part is to look more closely at them. The closer look will reveal a wide range of differences in the anxiety and anger depending on the situation. Once you can start zeroing in on each individual experience (see steps 1-3), a range of options opens up on how to deal with them (see steps 4-5).