You get a phone call and discover the person you have fallen in love with has decided to end the relationship.
An event is coming up and each time you think about this, you experience waves and waves of fear.
Some big kids at school teased you in front of your friends and when you get home you find yourself vividly recalling, over and over again, what happened. These images are accompanied by gripping, gut-wrenching feelings of embarrassment.
Americans typically use three approaches when they are faced with such experiences. Let’s take a quick look at them, and then consider three very different approaches that are free and backed by research effectiveness studies.
Three Typical American Approaches to Deal With Emotional Pain
1. Drinking alcohol or taking pills.
2. Trying to avoid thinking about the emotional pain.
3. Trying to divert your attention to something more pleasant.
If you are using one or more of these three approaches and find that you are completely satisfied with the results, I’d still like you to consider trying three different ones. They won’t cost you a dime, and there is scientific support for each.
Three Different Approaches to Dealing with Emotional Pain
1. Sensory Focus
“Sensory focus” involves turning your attention to the physical qualities of the pain and observing the sensations you are experiencing.
If the sensations bring forth words such as pain, or awful agony, you accept this without judgment. You very gently, when you feel ready, return your focus to the physical sensations as if you are tasting, for the first time, some fresh mountain water from a tropical island. Just let the sensations wash over and through you for a couple of minutes. Do this each time you begin to experience the sensations. Also, find some time once in the morning, and once in the evening to take a couple of minutes to sit by yourself and practice doing this.
Although for many Americans distraction is believed to be more effective for managing distressing painful experiences than observing the physical sensations, when compared in experimental studies, distraction most often turns out to be the inferior technique.
Now, I should point out that if you look quickly online, you will see research reports that claim just the opposite—that distraction leads to better outcomes than experiencing the felt qualities of distress. These reports are usually based on an analysis that failed to make a distinction between sensory focus and emotion focus. Emotion focus has individuals attending to the emotional aspects of the pain. For example, someone going through a painful experience might focus on a thought such as, “This pain is making me feel terribly angry.” Notice that the emotion focus approach has one observing a set of words describing the feeling, whereas sensory focus has one observing its physical sensations.
In more recent studies, researchers have been making a clearer distinction between emotion focus techniques and sensory focus techniques. It now looks like sensory focus tends to be more efficacious than distraction. More importantly for dealing with distressing emotional experiences, sensory focus was found to be even more effective when researchers looked not just at the short term effects of coping, but what happened in the long term.
Most studies on the effects of different coping styles look at what happens within four minutes of a painful experience. In such studies, sensory focus tends to be a more effective coping technique, but occasionally distraction did just as well, or even a little better. In a study by Kevin McCaul and Carl Haugtvedt, for example, distraction reduced distress early in the four minute trial, but attention to sensations was a superior strategy for the last two minutes.” When studies looked at what happens when pain lasts longer than a few minutes, or a similar pain occurs again a week later, sensory focus over time more clearly is the better coping strategy.
Now some have argued that sensory focus works with men, but not women. However, even for brief pain lasting for just a few minutes the results have been inconsistent. For example, Thompson and his associates found that women experienced less pain with distraction, but Roelofs and his associates found that women who report that they are high in pain-related fear benefited more from the sensory focus technique than they did from distraction. In this study the whole painful experience was of the short term variety, lasting four minutes. There are fewer studies involving women and longer term pain, but Leventhal and his associates found that women in labor who were instructed to monitor their pain sensations experienced a sharp decline in pain and negative mood during active labor. There was no decline in the control group that received no such instruction. Note that labor tends to last several hours, in contrast to the four minute type of pain that is usually the object of study in the scientific literature.
It appears that when you focus on carefully observing the sensations, your body mobilizes its internal resources to cope with the distressful experience. You have seen what happens when you cut your finger. You experience some pain, and before long your body, in an incredibly complex process, begins healing. Within a few days the cut is completely gone. You see from this that your body has a way to deal with the cut in a manner that the greatest scientists cannot yet duplicate. Similarly, when you take the time to fully observe the sensations from a distressing experience, your body over the course of time appears to carry out a process to address the distress in an incredibly helpful manner.
2. The Expressive Writing Technique
Over the course of four days, write for a minimum of 15 minutes at each sitting about something that has led to your challenging emotional experience. As you do so, make sure you include not only what happened, but also what you felt when it happened, and how you now feel about what happened. Include your deepest emotions and thoughts about what occurred. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. As you do so, recall the sensory experience of these feelings, not just the words that define the experience. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?
You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions, sensations, and thoughts.
As you go through this experience, many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours and in the long run is beneficial.
If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic and come to feel it is unwise to continue, trust your judgment and stop writing or change topics. You might try to return to the extremely unsettling topic again in a week or two. If you again begin to have feelings that are so extremely upsetting that you feel it is unwise to continue, trust your judgment and stop. Try one more time to write about this topic in a month or so. If you end up striking out, you might want to seek out a professional counselor to help you to process this sensitive material.
Expressive writing has demonstrated in research studies to improve health outcomes and to reduce the anguish people experience during episodes of depression. You can find the research supporting the expressive writing technique by clicking here and here.
For most people, meditation doesn’t provide relief of emotional challenges as quickly as sensation focus, but when it is combined with sensation focus and the expressive writing technique, it can lead to long term improvements.
In an earlier post, I describe a simple form of meditation, along with the research supporting its effectiveness (see Anger, Ruminations and Meditation). Millions of people for thousands of years have attested to both its health and emotional benefits.
So, there you have it, three approaches to dealing with emotions that are free, and can turn what is now experienced as pain into a valued source of creativity. Rather than something that has been perceived as negative, it is possible to come to understand that these challenging experiences are our only opener of our eyes to the highest levels of truth.
 J. Suls & B. Fletcher, 1985, The relative efficacy of avoidant and nonavoidant coping strategies: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, vol 4 (3) 249-288.
 K. McCaul and C. Haugtvedt ,1982, J. of Personality and Social Personality, , vol 43(1), 154-162.
 T. Thompson, E. Keogh, & C. C. French, 2011, “Sensory focusing versus distraction and pain: moderating effects of anxiety sensitivity in males and females,” Journal of Pain, 12(80), 849-858.
 J. Roelofs, ML Peters, & M. van der Zijden, 2004, “Does fear of pain moderate the effects of sensory focusing and distraction on cold pressor pain in pain-free individuals? The Journal of Pain, vol 5, 250-256.
E. Leventhal, H. Leventhal, S. Shacham, & D. V. Easterling, 1989, “Active coping reduces reports of pain from childbirth,” J. of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 365-371.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.