A number of common myths continue to circulate about resolving emotional pain. Some of these myths have been disseminated by therapists and writers promoting therapy approaches no longer upheld by research. Others come from those disillusioned with therapy because of experiences using unsuccessful techniques.
Still other myths persist through the efforts of individuals who have experienced a spontaneous release of emotional pain, and have then tried to help others, but do not understand the differences between individuals, nor all the components needed for a safe, effective release approach.
Myth # 1. The way to let go of the past is to talk it to death. Putting feelings into words does help some with calming down emotional activity in the limbic system. However, words are not the language of the deep brain. Emotions stored in the diencephalon or brainstem don’t respond well to talk therapy. Fear emotions are particularly unresponsive, so a lot of talk can produce slow and only partial relief. In addition, talking about trauma can “churn” it, bringing up the pain over and over without producing feelings of resolution and safety.
2. The best way to release anger is to vent and get it all out (anger catharsis). Every reliable outcome study to date shows anger catharsis makes people feel and act worse. Yet millions of people still believe they need to vent their anger verbally, hit something, or break something, and that this is the appropriate way to resolve their anger. In truth, anger is a cover emotion, masking the primary, and typically more vulnerable feelings (fear, loss, betrayal, inadequacy, etc.) In addition, anger is also often used for manipulation and to project blame. Venting, showing force or other forms of anger catharsis feed dynamics that produce intimidation, verbal and physical abuse and the destruction of relationships. True emotional release usually leads to discovering what is beneath the anger, dissolving the anger and resolving the underlying emotions.
3. Changing our attitudes and beliefs about painful events is the best way to change our feelings. Changing attitudes and beliefs is most helpful with emotions that are held within the cerebral cortex, such as shame, guilt and resentment. However, even these constructs are often grounded in fear or loss that is housed in the deep brain. Deep brain emotions are often repressed in a way that makes them inaccessible to cognitive processing. Thus, the attempts to change one’s attitude simply don’t reach the brainstem. It is more helpful to slow the brain down to an alpha brain-wave state in order to open up this access, or to use techniques that directly activate the brainstem. When the deep brain emotions are release, consciously-held attitudes and beliefs often change spontaneously and quickly as a result.
4. If you just focus on the present, the past will go away. Research show the past doesn’t go away. Trying harder and harder not to think about it or feel it produces a host of “distraction behaviors” such as overworking, addictions, thrill-seeking, or trying to overwhelm the conscious mind with constant noise from radio, television and computer activities. Yet in spite of all this distraction, research shows that the unresolved traumas from the past persist, reliably producing substance abuse, depression and health problems fifty years after the events occurred.
5. ”Letting it go” means I don’t let myself think about it any more, I make myself forget. (often this idea takes on a religious intensity due to the belief that “to forgive is to forget.”) “Make yourself forget” is an approach that intensifies dissociation and repression, shutting down the connection between the cerebral cortex and the deep brain, shutting off the pain at times, but at other times making it more difficult to consciously regulate painful emotions. Repression is a temporary and incomplete solution. Eventually deep emotions will begin to bleed depression, anxiety or insecurity into a person’s awareness. These repressed feelings will also come out as somatic ailments–headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease and various other physical illness.
6. Remembering or bringing up the past just makes it worse and reopens old wounds. (Another variation of this belief is expressed as “I have reconciled with my parents; I don’t want to be angry at them again.”) Remembering the past is not the same as releasing the past. Releasing, if done properly, lets painful feelings go in a way that is liberating and produces permanent relief. It also allows individuals to much more easily forgive and reconnect with those who have hurt them. (Note that common sense should be exercised–some abusive individuals never become safe, so it is never appropriate to reconnect with them–even when they pain they caused has all been released.)
7. Repressed events must be remembered to be released. This belief was once the foundation of a lot of “age regression” therapy, which is often unnecessarily traumatic. Now it is known that emotional pain can be effectively released without ever knowing what caused it. It can be accessed through affect bridging or by identifying a somatic expression of an emotion–and can be permanently and completely resolved without recovering memory.
8. Traumatic events don’t matter if I was too young to remember them. Infants definitely remember, having excellent procedural memory long before implicit memory develops. Otherwise infants would not remember all the words they hear that allow them to begin to talk by age one or two–before they have implicit memory. The truth is, trauma events in infancy and early childhood are particularly damaging because an infant has so few coping mechanisms to handle pain and stress. Emotional trauma from infancy can persist throughout adult life, causing depression, anxiety and other problems without a consciously remembered cause.
9. Emotional release has to involve crying or a lot of intense emotion. Good emotional releases should be paced to unfold gradually and managably, and should be grounded in enough emotional safety to proceed with relative little discomfort. The release of pain should alternate with periods of focus on positive, healing emotions and memories. The completion of a release requires that pain be replaced with a deep sense of peace and safety.
10. If I cried about an event, then I released it. The completion of an emotional release requires that a message, in deep brain language, communicate to the brainstem “you are safe now, the threat is over.” Many individuals cry, but never reach that feeling of safety and resolution. Thus the pain remains, even though crying about it may happen over and over again.
For more information about current research on what works and what doesn’t work in releasing the pain of the past, tune in to Healing Talk Radio (see the links to the right). Healing Talk will broadcast live on Wednesday, August 24th, and will restream three times daily for a week on Planetary Streams Talk Radio, Web Campus World Wide Radio, and Shoutcast.