Emotion Research: Clinical Psychology

Emotions are signals produced by the affective system, which integrates information from diverse sources and provides important feedback about the adaptiveness of specific behaviors. In psychopathology this feedback mechanism is disrupted or distorted, resulting in a disconnect in the feedback system, where the affective signal is not interpreted appropriately and maladaptive behaviors ensue. Treatment consists of recognition and acceptance of the affective signal (the emotion) and its adaptive integration with cognition and behavior.

Emotional processing represents an information processing system providing adaptive, primarily tacit (i.e., pre-conscious or unconscious), information about the organism's functioning, and preparing the organism for activity (e.g., fight or flight). In order to function effectively, that is, to satisfy the real, authentic needs (both basic biological and more complex social needs) of the organism, emotions must be recognized and fully-experienced by the (conscious) cognitive mind. Such recognition and experiencing allows two processes to take place: 1) it provides access to the implicit information about organismic needs, and 2) it allows cognitive insight and the creation of symbolic representations which provide a means of more effective satisfaction of these needs in the future through planning etc. Theorists differ in how much importance they give to cognitive activity in defining the emotional experience; that is, to what extent does cognition influence the nature of the felt emotion? Does the organism first become aware of an implicit "feeling" and then constructs a symbolic representation (the phenomenological view of Gendlin), or does the organism contribute to the meaning through symbolic interpretations based on prior cognitive structures (the constructivist view of Wexler)? If emotions are not attended to, the information they provide about the basic biological needs is not used and the affective system is not fully developed (differentiated) to support effective adaptation. Psychopathology results from not accessing or actively blocking some emotions, thus depriving the organism of the important information they convey about self and environment. Treatment focuses on the full experiencing of emotions, which allows the practice of new behaviors, which then lead to the differentiation of the emotional repertoire and effective use of this independent information processing system as a component of adaptive behavior. Some other prominent theorists within this category are Rogers, Wexler, Gendlin, Perls.

Greenberg and Safran (1987) provide a synthesis of many of these perspectives in their theory of emotions and emotional change in psychotherapy. They identify three types of emotions: primary, secondary, and instrumental. Primary emotions are analogous to the affective evaluations of situations and correspond to the authentic, real needs. (These primary emotions are distinct from the basic emotions discussed in experimental and cognitive psychology). Secondary emotions are emotions resulting from primary emotional reactions (e.g., anger may be the result of fear) or from cognitive appraisals. Instrumental emotions are patterns of behavior used to manipulate others. Greenberg and Safran suggest that only primary emotions should be the focus of psychotherapy and that primary emotions are the key to successful psychotherapeutic change. In addition to their categorization, Greenberg and Safran provide a systematic treatment of the central role of affect in clinical work.

Greenberg and Safran, 1987.

Editor: Eva Hudlicka [psychometrixassociates.com]

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