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How do people overcome grief or a fear of spiders? This lesson tells how emotional processing helps individuals cope with stressful events, how processing deficits can produce mental health issues (like phobia) and lists likely treatment.

Phobias

Fear of spiders, public speaking, death, and the number thirteen all have something in common. If the fear is extreme to the extent that it become irrational, it is labeled as a phobia. When someone remains isolated, unable to leave their house due to fear for their own safety, it is called agoraphobia.

Jane has suffered with agoraphobia for six years. She was once a successful lawyer, but seeing the horrors people inflict on each other finally caused her to have an extreme fear for her own safety. One day, she found that she could not step out the door no matter how many times she tried.Some people, like Jane, are not able to dispel their fear and cannot process emotions normally.

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In other words, emotional processing does not happen. In this lesson, we’ll explore the theory of emotional processing.

Emotional Processing

Emotional processing happens when an individual experiences an emotionally distressing event and is able to cope with those experiences over time to the extent that new experiences can occur (whether stressful or not) without a return to the previous distress. Basically, every person has experiences that cause fear, extreme sadness, anxiety and depression, but those experiences are temporary for the majority of the population.Some people relive those experiences and return to the distressing feelings over and over again. They are not able to process, or reduce, the emotions associated with those events.

These individuals then experience relapse (if a substance was used to cope), night terrors, phobia and other extreme reactions.

A Lack of Processing Ability

Why is it that the majority of people can look at a situation without fear while others are gripped by a fear or anxiety so strong they are paralyzed? Originally, it was believed that the individual had emotional issues that caused disruption to normal processing. However, the research began to show that a thought process was involved. It was not just an overly emotional response or a lack of normal emotional processing ability. Scientists began to think of the concept as cognitive-emotional processing in which both feelings regarding the incident and thought processes were involved.The cognitive side of the issue is thinking about an event and understanding it in such a way that the emotions dissipate with regard to the event.

The inability to process the emotions then comes from an individual’s inability to successfully complete this type of thought process regarding the event. Thus, the emotions remained heightened when reminders of the event occur.It is important to note that emotional processing problems usually only occur with regard to a certain class of occurrences or events. For example, an individual who is phobic about spiders may be a natural public speaker. A soldier who returns from battle suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have no stress reaction regarding unconnected events that were also stressful (a car accident, a death in the family, etc.

). Some people may be unable to process any emotional events, but that is seldom the case.

What Treatments Are Available?

Because some people demonstrate a lack of emotional processing, researchers looked for treatment options. In their quest, three successful means of treatment were identified:

  • Desensitization: During this therapy, the client is exposed to gradually increasing levels of stress-inducing stimuli.

    During each round, they are coached using relaxation and coping techniques.

  • Flooding: The feared object or situation is introduced for a sustained period of time. The client is in a safe space, and the counselor is coaching them during the process.
  • Modeling: In certain cases, if the therapist models healthy emotional processing, the client can overcome their anxiety.

These treatment alternatives have been successfully used for those with phobias and for other people who demonstrate a lack of emotional processing ability.

Lesson Summary

Emotional processing is the ability of people to process stress and other extreme events and move past them. When people are unable to process those emotions, they develop phobias and other mental issues. Emotional processing allows specific and intense feelings to dissipate over time. Unfortunately, there is a segment of the population who cannot do this.

Emotional processing deficits may cause and individual to have specific phobias and can lead to other mental health issues. Fortunately, psychologists have several different treatment options that have proven effective, including desensitization, flooding, and modeling.

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