bullet  History of emotional processing
bullet  Copies of the classical emotional processing articles
bullet  Mechanisms underlying emotional processing
bullet  Model of emotional processing
bullet  Perspectives of emotional processing from philosophy
bullet  References
bullet  Back to main page


‘A definition is enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words’
Samuel Butler, Notebooks

Rachman’s definition

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.

What exactly does ‘processing’ mean?

image002The 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:

  1. A series of actions directed to achieving a result or condition
  2. A method of doing or producing something
  3. A forward movement
  4. 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.