Emotions are functional and universal physiological responses (bodily reactions) to external and internal environmental stimuli. They originate in the brain and release neurotransmitters through the body. They are protective and provide information: Fear, sadness, disgust, anger, surprise, and happiness.
One pathway is to trace emotions that are elicited by stimuli coming from our outside environment. Another pathway is identifying emotions that are triggered by our feelings, and our elaboration and rumination on the origin of our feelings. These thought processes elicit emotional reactions (coming from within).
Emotions can be observed and/or measured as these are respiratory responses, alter heart rate, temperature, change pupil dilation, blood flow, facial expressions and can be observed in body language.
Feelings are the interpretations we attach to the physiological responses (emotions) and the meaning we give to the sensations to make sense of them. Feelings expressed in words are thoughts, and thinking is a conscious process. Feelings are unique and personal as the explanation we attach to our emotions is based on our memory of past experiences.
Knowing the differences between emotions, feelings and thoughts, and how these are connected, is helpful when working with people who experience trauma symptoms. Although we have no control over our emotions, we can guide our feelings based on new information and positive experiences. (Please also read about trauma and substance use).
So, what works?
- Mentalizing (understanding more about all of the above)
- Emotional regulations (tools and techniques)
- Using “old fashioned therapy” focusing on safety, trust, listening, validation and include #1 psychoeducation and #2 tools and techniques
- Addressing the recurrent thought processes and critically examining these using CBT techniques
- Treating the symptoms (on the emotional level as these are physiological responses) by taking medication that numb the intensity of the reaction
Mentalizing; understanding mental states, and how to navigate these through emotional regulation are important tools in healing from trauma. To increase effectiveness, identify the negative loop in thought processes, that lead to emotional turmoil.
Elisabeth Scheepers, Ph.D.