The first time I heard the term “emotion phobia” was when I was a graduate student and attended a workshop on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) given by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. Over the years in my career as a Clinical Psychologist I’ve become more and more interested in learning and working with people who struggle with “emotion phobia.”
What is emotion phobia? Emotion phobia is not an academic term per se, but it is a way to describe what clinicians and researchers in psychology refer to as “emotion regulation problems.” Here is what you need to know: “Emotion phobia refers to any acction/attempt (s) to avoid any emotional reaction you have at a given moment.”
As you know, every emotion has a life in it’s own. They have a specific duration and intensity; they attempt to communicate us something about ourselves, others, or the environment; and finally, emotions ask us to do something immediately, right away. More often than not and as a natural response, every time we experience uncomfortable emotions like shame, fear, or guilt we do everything we can to stop experiencing them… we simply, run away from our pain by engaging in a particular avoidance response or a combination of them.
Avoidance responses include responses like trying to replace one emotion with another one, drinking, using drugs, behaviorally withdrawing, cutting, escaping from an uncomfortable situation/place, etc. If we look at the workability of these avoidance responses, they work in a short-term because they help us to stop our discomfort/pain right away. Unfortunately, in the long-term avoidance responses make things worse for ourselves, people around us, and our living situation in general. Research has consistently show us that the more we “run away, suppress, or avoid” an emotion, not only the more frequent we’ll experience them but also their intensity will increase. At the end, we fundamentally ended up living a life that is based on our emotions (primary pain) and not on what truly matter to us (our values).
Now, here is a question for you: Are you struggling with emotion phobia? If you’re not sure, you can take a free online self-asessment by clicking here. If your answer is “yes” this is what you need to learn: emotion regulation skills.
In the next lines you will find a mini-exercise you can practice right now just to have an idea of what an emotion regulation skill looks like.
Here is what you need to do: Read the guidelines for the exercise below before you start. Then, think about a moment you struggle with last week, something of mild discomfort will be a good starting point for this exercise. Do the best you can to bring that particular moment imaging that moment as vivid as possible; finally, observe your emotional reaction to it by following through with the exercise.
1. Notice what you’re feeling.
You could simply ask yourself the question: What am I feeling right now?
2. Notice the characteristics of the emotion.
Ask yourself the following questions: How intense is this emotion? How does it feel in my body? What is the emotion trying to communicate me? What does the emotion wants me to do? How intense are the urges of this emotion?
3. Think about your choices.
If you act on the emotion and do what it tells you to do right now, is that particular behavioral response consistent with the person you want to be? Or is it a pain-based decision?
4. Make a choice.
Are you going to respond to the emotion based on what matters to you or is the emotion going to be your driven force?
(End of exercise)
Now, you have an idea of what an emotion regulation skill looks like. And also, you know that there is an alternative to your struggles with “emotion phobia.”
Finally, I would like to invite you to realize that every moment you encounter an uncomfortable emotion, you have a choice to make. Whatever emotion you are struggling with that’s not necessarily the problem; it’s your response to it that makes a difference.