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Emotional Processing: What is It and How Can It Help in Addiction Recovery?

We all go through massive traumas at some point in our lives, whether we know it or not. Breakups, deaths in the family, or major accidents are all examples, and all them require a certain “grieving period” for whatever was lost or changed through that trauma.

This period involves something we call “emotional processing.” Emotional processing is a term that originated in the mid-80s and was used to describe the therapeutic process your brain goes through when it digests information in the form of emotions.

Emotional processing has become much more popular as of late as a means of helping patients that have PTSD, but it can be used by any patient that has suffered an emotional trauma that hasn’t been properly processed.

The Base of Emotional Trauma

Every day, we face stresses and problems that make us uncomfortable in some way, but not all of these are carried forward through life. Most of them fade away as we fall asleep that night and we never think of them again.

But some of them refuse to be absorbed or processed by the mind and persist as problematic thoughts at “front of house,” or in the immediate consciousness. Our bodies and minds are made to be resilient, but we can’t handle everything. This is where the role of emotional processing comes in.

At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we’ve found that if traumas from substance abuse are permitted to fester, they prevent any real growth or change within a patient. Emotional processing is almost a prerequisite for meaningful change to occur later on.

Man holding head with one hand in emotional pain against black backgroundThe most succinct definition of emotional processing is the way an individual processes stressful life events. When the process begins, the end goal is to make sure the emotional reaction declines by the end of therapy.

Emotional Processing and Therapy

Bringing a person back to a point where they are like a blank slate of trauma is the ideal outcome for emotional processing, but it isn’t always possible. Time and decay of memory may serve as help, but the only way to really get through the trauma is by talking about it and reliving it.

As a form of exposure therapy, emotional processing can have drastic effects on the patients who use it, although it can feel painful in the short term.

Many people know emotional processing by a different name: therapy. The act of talking through a problem and finding peace with it has many different forms and routes, but the actual process is always the same. Someone thinks something through and finds ways to resolve their problems.

One thing that many people don’t realize is that talking can have a strong effect on one’s emotions and emotional health. This is a lot of what therapy is, and it borrows a lot of itself from the concept of emotional processing.

As a corollary, it’s believed that people that talk the least don’t feel the need to talk as much because they are so emotionally attuned that they don’t require constant “therapy” to see them through their traumas.

Emotional Processing is Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is often discussed in a variety of fields. It has been hypothesized that many allergies can be addressed this way, most crippling phobias can be treated this way, and emotional processing is just a more internal version of this.

Emotional processing is important in that if a certain trauma has not been digested properly by your psyche and is sticking around, then you adapt in an unhealthy way to this trauma.

To explain this further, if your mind knows that a certain fear has an intense effect on your ability to function, it will do everything it can to avoid that influence. As a result, you adapt and find ways around those “fear triggers” and the effects start to spider-web out over your life.

Exposure to this fear can alter the relationship between your neural network and the fear stimulus. The eventual result is a habituation that allows you reduce your anxiety and remain comfortable in the presence of the fear stimulus. In the end, your anxiety should disappear and leave you able to cope with the problems of life, just like anyone else can do.

In all of our work at the Alpine Recovery Centre, we have tried to find ways to make substance abuse-related traumas not feel like traumas anymore. If a patient can lose their fear response and instead think of a trauma as a learning experience, that patient will not only recover more quickly, but will also be able to face any future problems with much more fortitude.