NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Developing Skills to Manage Your Emotions With Experiential Therapy

I have been focusing on managing emotions and emotional intelligence in my last three articles (see my articles: How to Develop Emotional IntelligenceHow to Manage Your Emotions Without Suppressing Them and Developing Skills to Manage Your Emotions).  Those previous articles include self help techniques.  

Developing Skills to Manage Your Emotions With Experiential Therapy

The current article focuses on how experiential therapy can help if self help techniques don't work for you (see my article: Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

What is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy is a broad range of mind-body oriented therapies, which include:
  • AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy): What is AEDP?
Each of these modalities work in a different way, but what they all have in common is that they use the mind-body connection.

Rather than just talking about your problems in an intellectual way (as is usually the case in regular talk therapy), experiential therapy helps you to make the connection between your mind with your body to get to emotions that are often unconscious (out of your awareness).  

In that way, experiential therapy tends to be more effective than regular talk therapy (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy).

Experiential therapy is also used to help clients to overcome emotional trauma, including shock trauma and developmental trauma.

How Does Experiential Therapy Help to Manage Emotions
Since all experiential therapy works with the mind-body connection, clients learn to identify and manage their emotions.

For instance, many people come to therapy with emotional blocks.  These blocks are often unconscious.  

Developing Skills to Manage Your Emotions With Experiential Therapy

Emotional blocks often occur due to past negative experiences and unresolved emotions, including emotional trauma.

Once they are uncovered, these blocks usually involve negative feelings about the self.  Common examples are "I'm not good enough" or "I'm not lovable" or other similar feelings.

But since the blocks are often unconscious at the start of experiential therapy, clients are unaware of them at the start of them at first.  When they come to therapy, these clients might only have a vague sense that something is wrong, but they don't know what it is.

An experiential therapist attunes to clients and listens for the underlying unconscious roots to the problem.  She will also help clients to develop a felt sense of the problem by asking clients to feel the sensations related to the problem in their body (see my article: What is the Felt Sense in Experiential Therapy?).

Many clients can sense into their bodies to identify emotions, but many others can't.  When clients can't sense emotions in their body, an experiential therapist knows that this is part of the block and works in an empathetic way to help clients to develop this skill.

Clients who are unable to identify emotions often sense a difficult or uncomfortable sensation.  From there, the experiential therapist starts where the clients are at that point and helps clients to differentiate sensations into specific emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, contempt, shame, and so on.

Being able to detect emotions on an experiential level is different from having intellectual insight into these emotions.  It means actually feeling it as opposed to just knowing it in a logical way. 

This is an important distinction between regular talk therapy and experiential therapy because change occurs with the combination of intellectual insight and emotional awareness.

Clinical Vignette: Developing Skills to Manage Emotions With Experiential Therapy
The following clinical vignette which, as always, is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality is an example of how experiential therapy can help a client learn to identify and manage emotions as well as work through unresolved trauma:

After Ed's wife gave him an ultimatum to either get help in therapy or she would leave him and take their children with her, Ed began therapy with some ambivalence (see my article: Starting Therapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

Ed told his therapist that he often yelled at their young children when he got upset and then regretted it later because it frightened them.  He said he tried various self help techniques, like trying to pause by taking a few breaths, but his emotions often overrode any attempts he made to keep from losing his temper.

Initially, Ed was unable to identify the emotions involved when he got upset. He just knew that he felt overwhelmed, but he couldn't identify the emotions involved.

His experiential therapist provided Ed with psychoeducation about experiential therapy and the mind-body connection.

Over time, she helped Ed to go back into a recent memory where he became upset with his children. She helped him to slow down so he could feel in his body what he was experiencing at the time.  

At first, Ed had difficulty detecting physical sensations or emotions in his body, so his therapist helped him to develop a felt sense of his experiences by using a technique known in hypnotherapy as the Affect Bridge (also known in EMDR therapy as the Float Back technique).

One of the emotional blocks they encountered occurred when Ed had a memory of himself at five years old when his father told him, "Big boys don't cry."  There were other times when his father scolded him when Ed got angry or when he made a mistake.  

As she listened to Ed's history with his father, his therapist realized that these experiences resulted in Ed numbing his emotions from an early age which was why he was having problems identifying his emotions.

Using Parts Work, his therapist helped Ed to develop compassion for his younger self.  He could look at his own five year old son and realize just how young he was when his father shamed him (see my article: Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy).

Developing self compassion was an important part of Ed's therapy and, over time, feeling compassionate towards his younger self enabled Ed to get to the underlying emotions that had been numbed for many years.

Gradually, Ed was able to detect sadness when his throat felt constricted, anger when his hands were clenched and fear when his stomach was in knots (these are examples of how one particular person experiences these emotions and not universally true for every person).

As he continued to work in therapy on identifying and managing his emotions, Ed realized that when he got upset with his children, he was not only experiencing anger, he was also experiencing fear.  Fear was the underlying emotion at the root of his upset.

By then, Ed was curious enough to question why he felt fear when he was upset with his children. By sensing into his experience using the mind-body connection, Ed realized that fear was related to his childhood experiences with his father.  

He realized that he felt the same fear and sense of helplessness in the present that he experienced when he was a child (see my article: How Traumatic Childhood Fears of Being Helpless Can Get Triggered in Adults).

He realized that, although his father never said it directly, his father communicated to Ed that whenever Ed was sad or angry or made a mistake, Ed was allowing himself to be vulnerable to being ridiculed or worse.  

In other words, what was communicated to Ed was that so-called "negative emotions" or making a mistake was dangerous.  

This was a pivotal moment in Ed's therapy.  He realized that when his children made mistakes, which could mean making a mistake in their homework or getting an answer wrong, this sense of fear and vulnerability to danger were triggers that rose up in him without his awareness (see my article: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers).

Underneath his anger and fear, he sensed his intention to protect them, but instead of coming across as protective, he came across as harsh and critical, which was scaring them.

Once Ed learned to detect these emotions, he was able to stop himself from yelling at his children.  Having those physical cues he learned in experiential therapy allowed him to calm himself first so he could respond to his children more empathetically.

After he learned to manage his emotions, Ed worked on his unresolved childhood trauma with EMDR therapy so he was no longer triggered in this way.  

The work was neither quick nor easy, but once Ed worked through these issues, he no longer felt triggered.

Experiential therapy can help you to develop skills to manage your emotions.

Regular talk therapy can help you to develop intellectual insight into your problems, but problems often don't change with insight alone.  Change occurs on an emotional level.

This is an important distinction between talk therapy and and experiential therapy: With experiential therapy you can develop both insight as well as an emotional shift which enables you to make changes.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to manage their emotions and work through unresolved trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.