By Brian Robinson.
Although it may be fair to say that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Relaxation Therapy are the mainstream therapies when it comes to a program of anxiety recovery, it would be a mistake to ignore Emotional Therapy altogether. After all, we are each and every one of us emotional beings; anxiety itself can safely be defined as an emotional disorder; and it is also true that many of us are emotionally driven. Sometimes we act spontaneously and without much forethought.
Indeed, emotional therapists might argue that it is our negative emotions that gives rise to the tension and fear in the first place, with thoughts occupying more of a secondary role. An emotional therapist therefore, might suggest keeping an emotional log as opposed to a thought diary; or they may encourage emotional venting as opposed to challenging thinking.
The truth of the matter, however, is that thoughts and emotions are inextricably bound together. When we experience an intense emotion, this will inevitably be accompanied by a rush of thoughts. And likewise, when we experience troublesome thoughts, these will give rise to unpleasant emotions. What this tells us, is emotions have to be listened to.
So, although emotions are quite different to thoughts, they too need to be processed, and as it happens, we can deal with them in much the same way as we do with the stuff that goes on in our heads. For example, just as with thoughts, it‘s never a good idea to suppress emotions. Problems like post traumatic stress disorder can result from hiding away from feelings. We should always accept their existence and try to understand them. They yearn to be acknowledged; listened to; and put through a proper process of evaluation.
The first thing to say is that emotions can be the best of guides and the worst of guides. They can be healthy or unhealthy. We shouldn’t assume that the message they carry is always the right one or offers the best guide. However, just because an emotion is negative, that does not mean to say we have to try and get rid of it. Many negative things happen in life and many negative emotions flow from them. So, it is often right and proper that we should listen to our emotions and be guided by them.
When it comes to dealing with the way we feel the process can be fairly straightforward. We identify the emotion concerned; we ask what it is trying to tell us; and then we decide how to react to that emotion. What follows is a few examples of this process:
Extreme anger or rage is an example of an unhealthy emotion. At worst it can lead to outbursts of violence; and at best it can leave us smouldering and miserable. Once we recognise the unhealthy nature of the emotion, the process involves cranking the emotion back. For example, we allow our self to become annoyed rather than enraged. That annoyance then can be a healthy emotion in the sense that it encourages us to confront the offender rather than punch them. The cranked back emotion can be seen as a positive reaction, and can potentially lead to a better outcome.
Frustration or impatience can be unhealthy too, especially when there is nothing we can do about the situation we find our self in. When we cannot change or influence things, our only recourse is to change the way we feel and the way we react to these things. Again, we crank things back and become more stoical and accepting of matters. Someone once suggested: we have to swallow irritation before the irritation swallows us.
Feeling worried is something we all feel at one time or another. Unfortunately, worry is a cycle that doesn’t really help anyone and the feelings it generates can persist for days. This serves only to produce more tension and that feeds into and fuels our anxiety. However, it can be healthy to be concerned about things. Usually, we act on our concerns and this tends to resolve the worry issues or at least makes some headway with them.
Feelings of shame or guilt can be very unhealthy. Often, we overestimate the disapproval of others and the feelings becomes disproportionate to the reality. Shame usually implies the breaking of a moral code and this is sometimes seen as irresolvable. You can’t undo a sin for example. The sin can sit forever and haunt us if we let it. However, we are all human and we all make mistakes. Regret or remorse can be more healthy reactions to our mistakes. They can encourage us to change the way we act or think and so some good can flow from our mistakes.
People who feel hurt or broken hearted are often unforgiving and may see the hurt caused as being deliberate. The feelings can also imply damage, and we tend to see that in the same way as we see physical injury that is not open to repair. Reducing these feelings to disappointment may be a better pathway. People who are disappointed in others often communicate their feelings and so try and resolve the problem.
The feelings mentioned above can be described as simple and fairly straightforward. For example, with anger we can count to ten; walk around the block; find a punchbag. When we do that we come to see things differently. And when that happens, the emotion tends to weaken and dissolve away. Unfortunately, not all emotions are like that.
Anxiety, for example, is a complexity of emotions and it can leave us completely confused. It does not readily lend itself to a process of analysis. It is better described as a state of affairs or a condition. It is a reality that we have to confront or deal with rather than process. It is a reality we have to move forward from rather than be overwhelmed by.
Emotions can be seen as reactions rather than guiding lights. Feelings of shock, surprise or panic would fall into such a category. These types of emotions should spark a process of consideration rather than encourage us to run with the initial reaction. Feelings of panic do not necessarily have to lead to panic; surprise can be a good thing; and shock can be a good driver for change.
Feelings of hopelessness or despair are emotions that usually involve a prediction and that should always throw up a red flag. We conclude that there is no hope and that involves looking into the future. Often, feelings of despair can be the result of rushed assumptions or poor assessments. For example, it has already been suggested in these modules that feelings of hopelessness with respect to anxiety are misplaced. All sufferers can feel optimistic about recovery provided they go about things the right way.
Emotions can leave us confused and at sea. This can happen because there are other things that we also describe as feelings. For example, we say we feel hot or cold, but these may be bodily sensations rather than emotions. We talk about feeling symptoms but these aren’t emotions either. We say we feel tired emotionally, but we can also feel tired physically or exhausted mentally. This can be a problem especially for those suffering from health anxiety or a health phobia. It is important to know the difference between a symptom and an emotion and be clear about what it is we are feeling.
Finally, we should remember that emotions exist to serve us: we do not exist to serve them. Amongst a host of other things, they offer us a choice, a choice between harmony or discord. And it is we who have to choose: not the emotions or the thoughts!