Sunday, February 24, 2013

Is it possible not to have feelings?

A lot of my patients describe themselves as "emotionally detached."  Some of them tell me they've always been this way.  Others nostagically recall a time when things were different and find it disturbing that they can no longer experience emotion. 

A healthy emotional life is essential to overall well being.  Apart from enrigching our lives, emotions are important sources of information.  Emotions enable us to respond quickly to situations we don't yet understand.  They help us to evaluate new situations and unfamiliar environments.  They allow us to quickly identify what is important in a given situation and what is not; they direct our attention towards certain stimuli and away from others.  In short, emotions help us function. 

Unfortunately, they also have the potential to create significant problems.  No one (or almost no one) is born emotionally detached.  To feel is part of the natural human condition.  There are, however, circumstances and events that can occur during childhood that interfere with healthy emotional development.  There are also events that occur later in life that are so distressing that they completely disrupt pre-existing emotional processes, even for those with very healthy emotional functioning. 

Whenever I encounter a patient who has disconnected himself from his feelings I make adequate emotional functioning a primary goal of our work together.  I only occasionally get any resistance.  Most people realize that something is missing from their lives and are eager to do what they must to rememdy the situation. "You have emotions," I always assure them.  "You just don't notice them anymore."

I sincerely believe this.  I do not think it is possible for a human being to be completely devoid of emotional experience.  I do, however, believe that a person can be so detached from his emitions (for whatever eason) as to be completely unaware they exist.  If he wants to reconnect with his feelings, I explain, the first thing he must do is tune in.  But how does he do this?  What steps does he take? 

In my experience, the best strategies come from something call emotion-focused therapy.  (It's also known as process-experiential therapy).  Emotion focused therapy identifies what it calls "adaptive strategies for accessing emotion."  These strategies represent healthy ways to experience and respond to emotion:

1. Pay attention to emotion-related body sensations.  I often ask patients to set aside anywhere from one to five minutes twice a day to mentally scan their body from head to toe.  I give them a little chart and ask them to write down any physical sensations they notice in any part of their body, no matter how small.  I also given them a list of sensations that are commonly associated with specific emotions (for example, tightening of the chest for anxiety or a knot in the pit of the stomach for depression).  The goal is just to get them to start paying attention.  Emotions happen in our bodies.  We call them feelings because we physuically feel them.  All we have to do is pay attention.

2. Recall past emotion episodes.  There are a lot of different ways to do this.  I might ask someone to tell me about a memory of a time they felt happy or excited.  I might ask them to write a story describing a time they felt sad.  In any event, I try to get them to recall exactly what they felt in that moment, essentially re-creating the past emotional experience. 

3. Expose yourself to vivid emotional cues.  This could mean watching old movies of a loved one who is now deceased.  It could be describing something in such detail that a person can practically see it in his mind. 

4. Enact emotions by expressing them physically: Most emotions are accompanied by the urge to act.  Fear produces the urge to remove ourselves from danger.  Anger creates the urge to forcefully remove the object of our anger.  Anxiety is an action inhibitor and so generates the urge not to act.  Desire creates the urge to approach, possess, or consume the object of our desire.  Emotions also tend to be associated with certain facial expressions.  For people who are accustomed to suppressing their emotions, enacting them physically through symbolic action or exaggerated facial expressions can help them become more comfortable with them.

2 comments:

  1. What are the most common negative situations they encounter by being emotionally detached? Is it mostly in relationships or lack there of? I can't imagine a parent being emotionally detached, unless of course they encountered rape in the past.

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  2. Actually, one of the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is "experiences restriction in ability to love or feel other strong emotions." Unfortunately, this means that parents feel detached towards their children, husbands from wives, and children from parents.

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