Emotional expression 2

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 Emotional Expression from a Developmental Perspective

 Piaget explains that between the ages of about four and eight months old, infants mimic the emotional facial expressions of their caregivers.  He says that “infants cannot differentiate themselves from their environment, thus they are imitating what they perceive”.  He suggested that expressions in newborns are reflexes, rather than a true display of emotion.  Studies, such as the Affective Tigger Project have come to the conclusion that at around four years old, children finally internalise their understanding of emotional expressions (Sigman & Capps, 1997).  There is an ongoing debate about whether expressed emotions are equivalent to a feeling state, when no cognition occurs.  Feeling states are difficult to access, especially in younger children.  Thus Denham comes to the conclusion that each emotion has a unique and powerful collection of expressions, whether they are vocal, facial or bodily, behaviours and associated meanings (Denham, 1998). 

 A typical two year old displays a full range of emotions, which are freely expressed.  Expressed emotions become increasingly complex and elaborate, in the toddler and preschool years (Hyson, 1994).  By five years old the child has developed more poise and control.  By seven, the child is beginning to become more introverted and thoughtful.  Thus, they develop more self-control and emotional stability.  Around the age of eight, children begin to openly express their emotions.  Over the next few years children learn to manage their emotional expressiveness in different situations, according to cultural expectations and for self-preservative purposes (Denham, 1998). 

 Expressed Emotion and Psychiatric Illnesses

 Emotional expression plays a vital role in enhancing self-understanding.  Clients are often encouraged to express their feelings in therapy, to help them recognise and understand the emotions they are feeling (Safran & Greenberg, 1991).  Emotional expression is a key element in psychiatric illness (Jenkins, Oatley & Stein, 1998).  Therapists endeavour to help clients find a delicate balance of emotional expression, which ultimately leads to improved self-understanding and better ways of relating to people. 

Individuals with different psychiatric disorders can be hugely affected by emotion-based interactions with close family and friends (Kavanagh, 1992).  In clinical settings, the term “Expressed Emotion” refers to a slightly negative and often critical environment of an individual with a psychiatric illness, often Schizophrenia.  Psychotically ill people have been found to suffer earlier relapses of illness, if they live in families with high levels of expressed emotion (Jose, 1990).  This is thought to be as a result of the patients’ arousal being raised above an optimal level.  However, this may be a distinct characteristic of Schizophrenia, rather than universally applicable (McGhie, 1969; Baker, Hall, Hutchinson & Bridge, 1977).  Looking from a social interaction model, relapses could be expected to be significantly reduced if patients and relatives could develop more effective coping strategies to deal with problems.  For example, treatments involving skills-orientated family interventions have greatly improved the prognosis for schizophrenics, compared with individual treatments (Kavanagh, 1992).  Family interventions can significantly decrease levels of expressed emotion, thus relapses are notably less frequent.  For instance in 1987, Horgarty, Anderson and Reiss found that 66% of patients relapsed following two years of individual therapy.  A considerably lower proportion of patients, 32%, relapsed following family intervention.  Numerous countries have replicated these findings for schizophrenic patients (Jenkins & Karno, 1992).  Profound improvements can be seen in people with such psychiatric disorders, if a different way of interacting within the family can be learned. 

The Role of Emotional Expression in Therapy

In 1989, Pennebaker pioneered a brief and cheap intervention, involving the expression of emotions.  He claimed that the exploration of one’s deepest thoughts could help spur changes in one’s health.  His studies illustrated improvements in emotional well-being and academic performance, as well as reduced self-reported illness and physician visits (Pennebaker, 1990; Pennebaker, 2003;  Petrie, Fontanilla, Thomas, Booth, & Pennebaker, 2004).  


Emotional expression is increasingly being thought of as having psychological benefit.  Numerous studies claim the benefit of disclosing past traumatic events to a significant other, such as Shalev, Bonne and Eth’s in 1996.  In 1986, Pennebaker and Beall found that whilst simple unemotional disclosure did not benefit individuals who had experienced some kind of trauma, writing about their emotions surrounding their experience resulted in health benefits.  Several studies have also indicated that students who were able to write, emotionally, about personal and upsetting topics, were less likely to visit their physician than a control group that wrote about superficial topics.  (Greenberg & Stone, 1992; Pennebaker, Colder & Sharp, 1990; Pennebaker & Beall, 1986).

According to Frijda’s theory of the emotions, an emotion is always linked to an action tendency, which is a physiological response to situations that arise in the world (Greenberg & Safran, 1987).  Alongside the physiological changes that occur, specific facial expressions are elicited.  Many people equate facial expressions with emotional expression.  Tomkins (1962) even went as far as suggesting that a specific emotion is a specific facial expression and our awareness of that facial expression is the subjective experience of emotion.  Therapists pay particular attention to clients’ non-verbal and paralinguistic expression, including facial or postural expression, and even voice.  The face is an incredibly sensitive indicator, which is highly correlated with individual’s personal experience.  Therapists can use facial expression to help clients use this information to assess their own feelings.  Bucci (2001), has gone one stage further by describing many of the other non-verbal cues that therapists may detect even quite unconsciously.  She sees it as their task to bring their impressions into consciousness and communicate this information to the patient, so that they can potentially deal with it.  For example, the therapist might say: “I just keep getting this feeling that you’re all bound up, like a man in bandages.  Does that make any sense to you?”

 Expression of emotion is often thought of as being the “essence” of therapy (Greenberg & Safran, 1987).  The key to successful therapy appears to be the development of genuine feeling between therapists and their clients.  Providing appropriate levels of emotional expression can be found in therapy, a form of experiential learning takes place, wherein clients experience themselves as being cared for and valued.  Secondly, clients learn that they can be themselves and freely express their feelings towards their therapists, without negative consequences.  This opportunity for clients to have such an honest relationship, in which they can truly deal with their feelings, is a potentially invaluable experience. 

 The area of expression of emotion can be tackled in many different ways, within therapy.  For instance in 1999, Kennedy-Moore and Watson suggested therapists might help clients use their expression as a means of processing their emotions and symbolising their emotional experience.  Thus, emotional processing has been suggested to be the ‘finishing job’, in other words, the cognitive completeness or physiological balance. 

 Emotional Processing and Emotional Expression

 Our model of emotional processing (Baker, Thomas, Thomas & Owens, 2003) [Link to Emotional Processing Model] assumes in common with many other models (Gross, 1998; Pennebaker, 1995; Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999; Greenberg & Safran, 1987) that the drive to emotionally express oneself, is a natural physiological response to distress.  Emotional expression for some theorists (Frijda, 1986; 1987) is seen as crucial behaviour, which acts on the environment to achieve certain goals and as such, is the rationale for emotions.  Others, like Gross (1998) and Pennebaker (1995), regard emotional expression as physiologically important in reducing distress, or reducing arousal connected with negative emotional experience. 

 Emotional expression can be seen as an important component of emotional processing.  However, there are a number of other necessary components as well.  These include registering, appraisal and memorizing of events, replaying memories, the role of emotional and cognitive schemas in interpreting events, strength and meaning of the event for the individual, unconscious mechanisms, such as repression (keeping the emotion out of awareness) or dissociation (cutting the memory off from consciousness) and lastly, labeling and linking emotional experiences to the triggering event.  All of which, can be thought of as different components involved in experiencing and dealing with emotions.  Emotional processing is not any one component per se but it is concerned with how all of these various components interplay in converting an emotionally distressing experience, into a non-distressing one.  [Link to Definitions]. 

 Our model of emotional processing distinguishes mechanisms surrounding the experience of emotions, from those surrounding the expression of emotions.  Whilst in practical terms this is probably a seamless process, we believe it is conceptually useful to distinguish experience from expression.  We have hypothesized that it is more fundamental and harmful to control emotional experience, than to control emotional expression (Baker, Thomas, Thomas & Owens 2003).  The expression of emotions is behavioural.  Thus the mechanisms surrounding it, involve the real and imagined consequences of expression, cultural and family rules for acceptable expression and belief in ones entitlement to ‘let rip’.  These mechanisms may be different from those involved in emotional experience, which is of course experiential, rather than overtly behavioural.  Such emotional experience may involve feeling too much intensive emotion, feeling inappropriate emotion, or feeling numb.  Also important, is how the initial negative stimulus is registered, whether emotions are experienced as a gestalt, rather than separate somatic constituents and understanding the causes and meaning of the emotional experience.  In short, it could be said that emotional experience points more towards a stimulus event, and expression more towards the behavioural response. 

    In summary, emotional processing is not so much concerned about whether emotional expression is right or wrong but more with what mechanisms underlie successful and unsuccessful processing.  Failure to express emotions may be integrally related to failure to properly process an emotional event.  However, this is only one important part within a more complex process, as emotional processing is regarded as the overall encompassing concept within which, emotional expression simply constitutes the final stage. 

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