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Monday, February 29, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: An Emotional Problem You Thought You Resolved Gets Triggered Again

It's not unusual for people to revisit emotional problems in therapy that they thought they had already worked through at an earlier time in their life.  Different life stages and events can trigger these problems in new and different ways.  Rather than feeling disappointed or discouraged, it can be an opportunity to work through an issue in a deeper, more meaningful way.

The following fictionalized scenario is an example of this type of phenomenon:

Alice came to therapy to work on fears of being abandoned in her current relationship (see my article: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).

An Emotional Problem You Thought You Resolved Gets Triggered Again Later in Life

She knew logically that there was no objective reason to believe that her boyfriend of three years would leave her, but she still felt overwhelmed by this fear.  But, on an emotional level, she was constantly worried that her boyfriend would leave her no matter how many times he reassured her.

When this happens, it's often the case that there are underlying emotions, usually related to memories, that are getting triggered.

By doing an "affect bridge," which is a technique used in clinical hypnosis, we were able to trace back her fear to an earlier loss that she thought she had already worked through in a previous therapy--the loss of her father when she was 10 (see my article about the affect bridge technique:  What is the "Affect Bridge" in Clinical Hypnosis?).

Alice knew that she missed her father and she often wished that he was still alive, especially now that she and her boyfriend were talking about getting married.  But she said that, without doing the affect bridge, she never would have made the connection between her current fear and her earlier loss.

In a sense, Alice was relieved to know that her current feelings "made sense" in terms of the earlier loss, especially since there were no signs that her boyfriend would ever abandon her.

But, in another sense, she felt disappointed and frustrated that she had to revisit a problem that she thought she had worked through earlier.

As we explored her feelings, it became evident that she had worked through her grief in her last therapy for that time in her life.  But the intensity of her feelings for her boyfriend and their talk about getting married brought her to a deeper level, which she had been unaware of before.

Symbolically, for the sake of simplicity, we can think of the unconscious mind as if it had different layers.  Very often, when we work through an emotional problem, like a big loss, we work through it as best as we can at that time given our emotional development, life experience, and whatever is going on at that time.

Later on, at a different stage in life or with a different life event, like the possibility of getting married, this problem can resurface at a deeper layer, so to speak, of the unconscious mind that we were unaware of before.

In Alice's case, although she grieved for her loss earlier, she was not aware of feeling abandoned at that time.  Those feelings remained unconscious until the affect bridge made her unconscious feelings conscious (see my article: Psychotherapy: Making the Unconscious Conscious).

We started by separating her feelings related to her earlier loss from her current situation (see my article:          Working Through Emotional Trauma: Separating "Then" From "Now" in Therapy).  This helped to ease some of her fears so that she didn't feel the need to keep asking her boyfriend for constant reassurance.

Then, using EMDR therapy, we processed Alice's feelings about feeling abandoned by her father when he died (see my articles:  What is EMDR?How EMDR Works: EMDR and the Brain, and How EMDR Works: Overcoming Emotional Trauma).

Initially, she talked about knowing, logically, that her father loved her and he didn't want to leave her.

As we continued to process her feelings of being abandoned, Alice realized on a deeper emotional level that her feelings "made sense" on an emotional level, especially since she was only 10 when her father died.

The sudden and unexpected nature of her father's death contributed to her feeling abandoned.  She also realized that these feelings of abandonment were on a deeper level of her unconscious mind and they were inaccessible to her during her last therapy.   These feelings didn't surface until this time in her life when she felt emotionally vulnerable with her boyfriend as they talked about making a life commitment to each other.

EMDR therapy enabled Alice to work through her feelings of abandonment so that she was no longer getting triggered in her relationship.

An Emotional Problem You Thought You Resolved Gets Triggered Again Later in Life

Alice still missed her father, especially on her wedding day, but she was no longer vulnerable to fears of abandonment.

As human beings, we are complex emotional creatures.

At different stages of life, old emotional wounds can resurface in new and unexpected ways, even emotional wounds that we thought we had worked through at an earlier time in life.

Often, if we're unaware of what is going on unconsciously, we don't know what is at the root of the problem.

Using experiential types of therapy, like clinical hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing, and EMDR therapy, usually helps to get to deeper, unconscious levels in a shorter period of time than regular talk therapy and also helps to work through the problem at a deeper level (see my article: Experiential therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've been unable to work through your problems on your own, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in your problem.

I usually recommend that people work with psychotherapists who are trained to work experientially to get to these deeper levels.

Recognize that it's not at all unusual for old emotional wounds to resurface at different stages of your life.  Working through an old emotional wound at a deeper level can help you to feel more emotionally integrated and fulfilled.

About Me:
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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