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Emotions and therapy

By Dr. Marcel de Roos (Psychologist PhD, the Netherlands)

Many Sri Lankans have an almost ingrained denial of mental health issues. It’s fine to hobble around with your broken leg in plaster and share this inconvenience with everybody who cares to listen. On the other hand it’s almost a taboo to talk with a friend about your depressed child or about the relationship problems you have with your spouse. In addition, Sri Lankans have a tendency to medicalise psychological issues (they prefer taking pills) instead of talking about their feelings. The shame culture seems to be very strong.

Apparently there are reasons for this, because the gossip culture is very powerful too. When clients finally come to my psychology practice to talk about their issues, very often they say that they chose me because I am a foreign resident (Dutch, and married to my Sri Lankan wife Manjula). They assume (which is true) that I don’t gossip about my clients.

Outward appearances count: the husband has to earn well, the wife smiling and pleasant and the children must be well behaved and show good study results. To complete this fairy tale package, the house and car must be owned and regular holidays abroad should be included too.

Many families suffocate in this outward shell. In any marriage there are issues which need to be talked about: relationship problems (like a lack of affection/respect, conflicting personalities, sexual problems, unfaithfulness, communication problems, etc.), unhappy children (problems at school, anxiety, depression) and financial problems to name a few.

To top this, in South East Asian culture, much attention is placed upon mind and behaviour; emotions are usually disregarded. In reality, emotions (and instincts) are the driving forces in our lives. Evolutionary speaking, emotions are much older than our cognitive brain. We are often taken by surprise by instinctive reactions and emotional impulses. Although our thinking process is very quick and seems to be the powerful ruler, emotions are difficult to control from the neo cortex. It’s one of the reasons why we sometimes feel “driven” without exactly knowing why. We can be filled with joy, overwhelmed by grief, engulfed with power or we can feel deeply depressed.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about emotions and how to try to change unwanted behaviour and emotions. As a result, while attempting to change emotions people use “here and now” techniques which offers only short term recourse. Perspective (“the glass is half full instead of half empty”), positive thinking, concentrating on your strengths and positive points, and so forth. The problem with these techniques is that they are mind driven and focus on your behaviour whilst totally ignoring the uniqueness of the emotions. What is worse, they only concentrate on the present, while ignoring the influence of emotions from your past.

Another misconception is the “chemical imbalance” theory concerning emotions. This is just a theory and an incomplete one at that. At present, emotions cannot be corrected with fine-tuned medications to bring on the desired specific effect in the brain. The state of the art medication for depression is a good example for this. The underlying theory for the working of anti-depressant pills is incomplete and lacks direct evidence. In addition, the modern anti-depressants have a long list of (possible) serious side effects. For an extensive discussion about all this see my article “anti-depressants and the chemical imbalance hoax” on my website.

What does work is a combination of cognition, behaviour, emotions, influences from your past and the present. This blend will bring you balance in your life.

Thirty-five years ago when I started practicing, the emphasis in psychology was on trying to change the thoughts of clients. The assumption was that as a result of this their feelings would improve. As I got more experienced I realised that it wasn’t helping my clients in the long term. The feelings of depression or anxiety in many cases reappeared after a while. That’s why my motto in psychology is ‘feelings are stronger than the mind’. The inclusion of feelings and making them the focal point of the therapy changed a lot for my clients.

When people are feeling empty, depressed or burnt out, these are in many cases symptoms of an underlying conflict. Usually these symptoms stem from feelings from the past which are still too painful to be felt. Secondly, it focuses our attention to our self instead of towards those who have done us harm in the past. When you succeed in making the connection, then those ‘old’ feelings (usually mixed with present ones) explain to you the cause of your present state. Then you can start to feel the painful feelings from the past in full. At first you practise it with the help of a therapist and later by yourself. After a while the intensity of the painful feeling will diminish.

Focusing on your feelings can reveal the real cause of your issues and can allow you to feel the deeper, underlying root-causes. The new approach is that you don’t focus on the ‘thought’ side, but that you work with your feelings. Present plus past combined. It is a very down to earth method. It is aimed at giving the client powerful tools to do the work himself so that in time he does not have to rely on the therapist.

Apparently psychotherapy seems to consist only of talking. But in reality it is all about FEELINGS. Regularly (once or twice a week) venting your feelings and speaking about your issues with a professional psychologist in a safe setting can significantly alleviate your burden.

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