Emotional processing & health

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Article from Dorset RDSU Newsletter,Radar
Volume 7, Issue 2, June 2003

The idea that emotional release can benefit our health goes back to Greek Tragedy where the audience participating emotionally in the dramatic action goes away psychologically cleansed, purged of harmful feelings and sensations.  This idea of release or catharsis assumes that we can in some way store emotional pain in our bodies and that this is unhealthy.  “Bottling up” emotions; “keeping a stiff upper lip” “pent-up feelings” “pushing down our feelings” “ sweeping things under the carpet” are part of the folk lore of western society. 

Is this simply folk ideas or is there some substance in the notion that bottling up emotions is bad for us? 

Emotional processing is an attempt to put these ideas into a scientific framework.  It seeks to discover how we process disturbing or negative life events and what “bottling up” amounts to.  Are there blockages or inhibitions in the way people deal with and express emotions – can we classify them?  Do they really affect health and wellbeing?  In the Dorset Research and Development Support Unit we have tried to provide a firm basis for this sort of research by developing an emotional processing scale, a psychometric questionnaire able to identify and quantify blockages in processing emotions. 

In the sixties, Grossarth -Maticek2 began a longitudinal study in which the eldest inhabitant of every second household in a Yugoslavian town of 17,000 people was interviewed and their physical and psychological state measured.  When mortality was checked 10 years later, 158 of the 166 cancer deaths and 115 of the 164 coronary disease deaths were in people who had scored 10 or 11 in an 11-item test measuring anti-emotional attitudes; we might call it the stiff upper lip test.  Research on expressing emotions and cancer3, into cardiac disease and Type A personality4, and the relationship of emotional suppression and immune functioning5, are part of a growing literature on the link between emotions and illness. 

In psychotherapy a woman called Anna O is perhaps the most famous patient ever, who when she received a course of hypnotherapy referred to it as her “talking” therapy.  Sigmund Freud went on to make “talking therapy” into a worldwide movement with hundreds of offshoots today, from respectable approaches such as counselling and cognitive therapy to the more, shall we say “conceptually challenged” approaches such as primal scream, re-birthing and Reich’s orgone energy meter. 

Our research, using the Emotional Processing Scale, suggests that “bottling up” emotions is a lot more complex than we first thought.  We have consistently found 8 measures of “bottling up” emotions.  This includes attitudes to emotion (e.g. I wished I could have removed my emotions), control of emotional experience (e.g .I detached myself from emotional feelings) control of emotional expression (e.g. I kept quiet about my feelings) and over-reactive emotions (e.g unwanted feelings kept intruding).  Research projects in Dorset using the emotional processing scale are being conducted in patients with fibromyalgia, medically unexplained symptoms, chronic back pain, colorectal cancer, anxiety, depression and personality disorder.  This is all helping to build up, in a structured way, a better knowledge base for understanding mind-body interactions. 

Professor Roger Baker
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Co-ordinator, Dorset RDSU