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John, an ex-alcoholic patient, who had experienced appalling sexual abuse throughout his childhood, discovered at 14 that vodka diminished the pain and memories of the abuse and for the next 30 years lived in a perpetual alcoholic haze. A prison sentence at the age of 45 enforced sobriety upon him, at which point he became overwhelmed by unresolved traumas and hurts from his childhood. The alcohol had numbed the daily pain of his memories but had effectively put emotional processing on hold.
What had he done to impede any natural process of emotional processing? Why was the emotional pain as severe at 45 years as at 14?
Are there unhelpful ways in which we can avoid processing emotional hurt? Is there a sort of top ten bad habits which can guarantee continuing emotional pain for many years?
12 steps to unhappiness
The emotional processing scale (Baker, Thomas, Thomas, Holloway, Horne & Lothian 2002) was devised exactly for this purpose, to map out the psychological mechanisms constituting ‘bad processing’. Our article ‘Development of a new emotional processing scale’ (Baker, Thomas & Thomas in preparation) describes the psychometric procedures used to measure these mechanisms. The original items used for the questionnaire were based on Baker’s emotional processing model and EP & Counselling article. Several series of factor analyses suggested there were 8 separate psychological mechanisms or ‘factors’ which can hinder emotional processing. Three of these factors related to the person’s attitude to their own emotion. These were:
Egodystonic attitude, where one’s own emotions are regarded as unpleasant, confusing, intolerable and are poorly understood.
Attunement is an attitude in which emotions are regarded as normal, acceptable and correct attributions are made about the emotion and its causes. (This factor is reverse scored to ensure that all factor scores represent problems).
External attitude is where the person is aware of and focuses on the bodily sensations involved in an emotion rather than the psychological meaning of the emotion itself. The person uses external or somatic attributions to interpret the cause of the sensations, making them prone to physical illness interpretation of emotions.
Four of the factors relate to different mechanisms for controlling or regulating the experience or expression of emotions. They are:
Avoidance – ensuring minimal involvement in stimuli which trigger emotions, thereby reducing disruption.
Dissociation is a mechanism for cutting off the experience and memory of discomfort, for instance ‘I detached myself from emotional feeling’.
Suppression – the person allows the experience of emotions to be registered but tries to ‘bottle’ up or keep quiet about their feelings.
Can’t control involves the recognition that there are strong emotions which they are unable to control such as ‘when upset or angry it was difficult to control what I said’.
Lastly, ‘Intrusive emotional experience’ measures the degree to which intrusive, unwanted, repetitious emotional experiences occur and how quickly the experience declines in intensity. This is close to Rachman’s (1980) description of the signs of poor emotional processing.
All the factors measure psychological dimensions which are involved in hindering emotional processing (with the exception of ‘intrusive emotional experience’ which is a sign of poor emotional processing). Any of these factors can potentially impede time’s attempts to get on with the work of healing.
In our research we have compared the emotional processing scores of patients with various psychological disorders (anxiety, depression, personality disorder, anorexia nervosa etc) with healthy individuals. Research on Psychological Disorders.Patient groups show significantly impaired emotional processing compared to healthy individuals on many of the eight dimensions. The differences are highly significant. We have also checked that the emotional processing scale is measuring independent emotional features and is not simply a reflection of having psychological symptoms. It is impossible at this stage to say whether poor emotional processing contributes to the development of psychological disorders or is a consequence of having a psychological disorder but there is little doubt that patients with psychological disorders do display a range of emotional processing difficulties.