NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

When You Shut Down Emotional Pain, You Also Shut Down Potential Pleasure

There are many people, who have a history of traumatic experiences and who could benefit from psychotherapy, but they never come to therapy.  Instead, they do whatever they can to try to suppress and avoid feeling their feelings, but what they usually don't realize is that when they shut down their emotional pain, they're also shutting down the potential for feeling pleasure (see my article: What Happens When You Numb Yourself Emotionally).

When You Shut Down Emotional Pain, You Also Shutdown Potential Pleasure

In addition, what many of people don't know is that a skilled trauma-informed psychotherapist knows how to help clients to develop the ability to expand their "window of tolerance" so they can work through their traumatic experiences in an emotionally-safe therapeutic environment (see my article: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Psychotherapy).

What is the Window of Tolerance?
In my prior article, I explained that, according to Dr. Dan Siegel, the window of tolerance is a term that refers to the optimal level of arousal or the optimal zone.

When clients are in their optimal level of tolerance, they are neither hyper-aroused nor hypo-aroused.  They are able to deal with problems as they come up because they're at their optimal level of arousal.

During times of extreme stress, if clients are experiencing hyperarousal, they're in the flight/flight mode, which includes hypervigilance, anxiety, racing thoughts and possibly panic. If they're experiencing hypoarousal, they're in the freeze mode, which includes emotional numbness, feelings of emptiness or emotional paralysis.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: When You Shut Down Emotional Pain, You Also Shut Down Potential Pleasure
The following fictional vignette illustrates how suppressing emotional pain also suppresses pleasure:

After Rena's mother died in a car accident, Rena would wake up each morning feeling that she had nothing to look forward to and she lacked purpose and meaning in her life.

She told her new psychotherapist that everything felt "blah" and no sooner did she wake up in the morning than she felt like hiding under the covers (see my article: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One: Complicated Grief).

When You Shut Down Emotional Pain, You Also Shut Down Potential Pleasure
She explained to her therapist that she didn't always feel this way.  For most of her life, she looked forward to the joy that each day would bring and she was able to take emotional challenges in stride.  But she was very close to her mother and after her mother died in a car accident, her grief was unbearable.

Rena realized that she had never experienced such raw sadness and anger before.  Her new psychotherapist explained to Rena how emotional numbing numbed joy as well as pain.  She recommended that they use EMDR therapy to help Rena overcome her trauma (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Over the next several months, as Rena worked with her therapist on the unresolved grief, her therapist titrated the work so that it was manageable for Rena.

Rena's psychotherapist worked in a way that was within Rena's window of tolerance so that, although Rena still felt very sad when she processed her grief, she didn't feel overwhelmed.

Gradually, Rena was able to expand her window of tolerance so that she could tolerate dealing with deeper levels of emotion without feeling overwhelmed.

Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome Traumatic Experiences 

Over time, Rena felt as if she was coming back to life again.  Although she continued to feel sad, she also had moments of happiness.  She felt like she was coming out of a period of time when everything felt gray.  Now, she was beginning to notice colors, nature, music--all the things she enjoyed in her life before her mother died.

She memorialized her mother by writing short stories about her from the time her mother was a young girl up until the time she died so unexpectedly.  This felt healing to Rena (see my article: Writing About Your Mother After Her Death).

Shutting down often occurs when people feel overwhelmed by emotion.  It starts as a protective defense mechanism.  Over time, it can develop into an emotional and physical numbing that shuts out pleasure as well as pain.

When this occurs, some people feel their life has no meaning.  The more they try to avoid feeling, the more exhausting it becomes to try to suppress their feelings.

There is no quick fix for overcoming an overwhelming traumatic event, but trauma therapy can help.

Getting Help in Therapy
While it's understandable that people who have experienced trauma want to protect themselves from feeling the emotional pain, avoiding feeling emotions only makes it worse.

A skilled trauma therapist knows how to work with trauma in a relatively manageable way.

This doesn't mean that there is no emotional pain involved, but an experienced trauma therapist can work in a way to minimize a client getting overwhelmed by working within the client's window of tolerance and helping the client to expand that window of tolerance (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you're feeling stuck with unresolved trauma, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in helping clients to overcome trauma.

Working through psychological trauma allows you to work through the emotional pain so that you can feel like yourself again and you can lead a more meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I am a trauma-informed psychotherapist who works with individual adults and couples.

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

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