Styles of emotional processing in psychological disorder

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In early studies (Baker, Holloway, Thomas, Thomas & Owen – in press), patients with panic disorder showed significantly greater emotional processing difficulties than two non patient control groups. Three emotional processing dimensions distinguished the panic group – greater control of emotional experiences (‘smothering’ or ‘bottling up’ emotions), greater awareness of feelings and more difficulties in labelling emotions. This research showed us that emotional processing was a promising concept but left us wondering how specific this was to panic disorder and whether it applied to other psychological disorders.  We were also made awarethat no adequate measure of emotional processing was available at the time.  Consequently, after developing the emotional processing scale, we wanted to apply it to a broad a range of psychological conditions as possible to determine if there were emotional processing deficits in psychological conditions other than panic.  We also wanted to explore whether there were any different patterns in emotional processing characterising the different disorders.

This section presents some early analysis of data, although it is too soon to reach any firm conclusions.  When all the data are gathered, we will conduct a full analyse and prepare various papers for publication in psychological journals.  Early findings suggested that those with psychological disorders do indeed process their emotions differently to those without psychological disorders. A group including people with a range of psychological disorders including anxiety, depression and personality disorder, was recruited and compared to a group of non-patient controls.  Table 1 shows how the two groups scored on the subscales of the EPS.

With the exception of the Externalised subscale, the mean differences between the two groups on all subscales were highly significant. Means were compared using independent samples t-tests.

faces for emotionEgo Dystonic – On this subscale the psychological group scored significantly higher than the control group (p<0.001). This suggests that those with psychological disorders are uncomfortable with their emotions and dislike them more than others. Low to moderate correlations with psychiatric symptoms (eg anxiety and depression scores) suggests this is not simply an artefact of having more negative affect.

<Attunement – Mean scores were significantly higher in the psychological group (p<0.001).  The psychological group were less attuned to their emotions than the control group.

Externalised  – There were no significant differences on this subscale. Both groups attribute external causes to their emotions equally.

Intrusive Thoughts – Significantly higher levels of intrusive and persistent emotional feelings were experienced by the psychological group (p<0.001).  This factor accords quite closely to the signs of poor emotional processing presented in Rachman’s 1980 paper.

Avoidance – The psychological group tended to avoid situations that would cause negative emotions more than the control group (p<0.001).

Dissociation – Significantly higher scores were found on this subscale with those with psychological disorders (p<0.001). This suggests that people with psychological disorders both actively attempt to detach from their emotions and find their emotional experience blunted or dull.

Suppression – Here the people in the psychological disorders group scored significantly higher than the control group (p<0.001), showing a tendency to smother or ‘bottle up’ their emotions.

Under controlled expression – Again the psychological disorders group scored significantly higher than the control group (p<0.001), suggesting that this group has difficulties with expressing emotion in a constructive way.

Group (P) (n=140)
Group (C)
Mean score (sd) Mean Score (sd)

Ego Dystonic

30.7  (12.2)

18.1  (9.30) 10.1 (296) <0.001
Ego Syntonic 24.3  (8.8) 17.5  (6.8) 7.4 (297) <0.001
Externalised 15.6  (6.2) 14.9  (4.8) 1.0 (293) Non significant
Intrusive thoughts 33.6  (9.1) 26.2 (9.1) 7.3 (296) <0.001
Avoidance 16.4  (7.6) 13.2 (7.2) 3.8 (299) <0.001
Dissociation 20.2  (9.6) 12.6 (7.6) 7.5 (296) <0.001
Suppression 20.5  (9.3) 13.6 (7.5) 7.1 (297) <0.001
Can’t control 18.0  (9.4) 11.4 (6.5) 7.1 (299) <0.001

High scores represent poorer processing on each dimension

For the journal articles we intend to present separate data for the following groups: anxiety disorder (possibly sub-analysis for PTSD and panic disorder), depression, personality disorder and anorexia nervosa.