World Mental Health Day: how does the way we process emotions affect our health?

Nearly every day, we are faced with some kind of stress or difficulty, which we need to overcome and usually do so without it causing us significant trauma. Less frequently we may have to cope with major life events, such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one or a relationship breakdown. Under these circumstances, our resolve and the way in which we process difficult events may be seriously challenged.

This year’s World Mental Health Day focuses on the importance of ‘psychological first aid’; the idea that in a crisis situation, people’s psychological wellbeing and how they process that event is just as important as their physical needs. For more than twenty years, experts in Bournemouth University’s Clinical Research Unit (BUCRU) have been studying emotional processing of daily and unexpected events and what impact this can have on our mental and physical wellbeing. Professor Roger Baker, lead researcher and a clinical psychologist, explains their research and its implications.

“Most people are able to process emotional or traumatic events and, once having dealt with the situation, are able to return to their normal behaviour. However, this isn’t true for all of us. In some cases people find it very difficult to process emotional events, which can lead to psychological disorder or psychogenic conditions,” says Professor Baker.

“I first noticed the effects of emotional processing difficulties in panic attack patients in the 1980s. At the time, panic attacks were only just beginning to be recognised as a condition distinct from generalised anxiety disorders, and what struck me was the connection between a traumatic event in people’s lives and the emergence of their symptoms.”

“This link came up over and over again, suggesting that there was likely to be a clear connection between the way we process emotional events and its implications for our mental and physical wellbeing.”

“Over the last fifteen years, I’ve been working with fellow researchers in BUCRU – including Dr Sarah Thomas and Professor Peter Thomas – and others to explore how emotional processing affects people in a variety of different situations and with different health conditions. These range from people with MS, people with cancer to people who have suffered abuse and psychological conditions such as depression, alcoholism and anorexia.”

“Based on the data gathered, we have been able to establish norms for emotional processing, both for healthy people and people in very specific circumstances. We’ve used this data and our research in this area to develop a recently published Emotional Processing Scale, which asks people to reflect on their emotions over the last week. It analyses five different areas of processing – suppression, signs of unprocessed emotion, controllability of emotion, avoidance and emotional experience.”

“Each area is given a score, with higher values indicating an area of difficulty. It can be a really helpful process both for the individual and for their psychologist as it highlights the issues which therapy could help with. People can fill out the questionnaire at the beginning and end of their treatment to give an indication of how their processing abilities have changed.”

“Often when people come in for therapy, they’ll discuss their problems not in terms of cognitive or behavioural symptoms, but how distressing it makes them feel. As psychologists, we need to be able to move beyond cognitive and behavioural debates and consider people holistically, which includes taking into account their ability to emotionally process events.”