Why is emotion important and what is Emotion Focused Therapy?

Emotions determine how we see the world, show us what is important to us, tell us what we want or need, help us to get in contact with our body, form our behaviours and give meaning and direction in life. 

We have emotions and actions that are adaptive in certain situations, a few examples:
When we have loss or separation (situation), we feel sad (emotion), and we would seek support (adaptive action).
When there is suffering of someone we care about (situation), we will feel compassion (emotion), and we will offer support (adaptive action).
When there is a violation or an attack on ourselves or loved ones (situation), we will feel anger (emotion), and we will want to protect/assert/defend (adaptive action).

We can also get stuck in our emotions and not be able to move on from a certain situation. At this point the emotions are not helpful anymore. For example we could:

  • Cover up an adaptive emotion with another emotion. 
  • The intensity of the emotions is too much or too little regarding the situation. 
  • An emotional response from a past experience could be triggered in a current situation.

I will tell you more about emotional response types in my next blog. 

What can we do when we get stuck in our emotions?
In a safe environment when a therapeutic alliance is built you can slowly and gradually start working with the emotions. Emotion Focused Therapy helps to get in contact with emotions, become more aware of emotions, regulate emotions, differentiate between emotions, deepen into certain emotions or core pains, accessing the underlying unmet need of the emotion, stay with certain emotions, acces useful information and promote expression of emotions.

This will eventually create relief, a shift in emotions, more awareness and better coping mechanisms. You will be able to feel more free and continue your life in a more relaxed state.

Written by: 
Flo Westendorp, Registered Clinical Psychologist
Extended Health Care Psychologist Certificate, MSc & BSc (Clinical Health Care Psychology)

Linking behaviour and emotions in young people

A fundamental premise of the well researched and evidence-based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), is that behaviours (the ‘B’) or actions have a direct impact on our emotions. Think about the difference in your mood when you leave the house to do an activity or have social interaction, compared to spending an inactive day alone at home.

Depressed young people can feel that they have little or no control over their symptoms and their lives. They engage in activities but get little pleasure from them. They may also find it difficult to recognise, initiate and maintain pleasant events and activities, which are related to more positive thoughts and moods. They may have fallen into the trap of giving up easily, not being bothered and feeling that it’s useless to try.

Bearing this is mind, CBT works on “activity scheduling” – this is about taking a detailed look at the things/activities a young person does on a typical weekday and weekend. They can then rate how much pleasure or sense of achievement each activity gives them on a scale from 0-10. This is a very simple exercise, but gives young people a good understanding of how different activities can affect mood. They might notice that besides the routine of getting ready, spending 7 hours at school, doing homework and extra curricular activities, there isn’t much time for doing things that they actively enjoy or take pleasure from. An interesting dynamic is also considering how much pleasure time spent on social media gives the young person – they might notice that they are spending 2-3 hours on Instagram, but it’s having a detrimental impact on their mood.

Once we have a good understanding about the day to day routines, CBT helps to look at where and how we can make changes to this, thereby helping the young person to do more pleasurable activities. By being purposeful in scheduling more positive activities, we can help the young person to gain a sense of pleasure and mastery. CBT also encourages self-reward and praise when you manage to achieve something, and this is where parents can be particularly helpful in supporting the young person to implement this.

The rationale behind this approach is to enable the young person to reinforce positive behaviour and feel more in control, so that this impacts on mood. It’s a simple but effective method.

Written by:
Dr Kanan Pandya-Smith
Clinical Psychologist