An end to negative emotions?

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This article is part of our introductory series on cognitive-behaviour therapy.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) recognises that emotion is an integral and inescapable aspect of human experience. Emotion is what brings meaning to our lives, enriches experience and memory, enables learning and protects us from harm.

Positive emotional states like joy, excitement, relaxation, happiness and euphoria are what most of us strive for much of the time. The reality is that these emotions are typically short-lived and unsustainable. Healthy negative emotional states such as sadness, apprehension, frustration, regret, boredom and disappointment are uncomfortable but essentially normal and actually motivate us to alter undesirable situations. Unhealthy emotional states such as depression, anxiety, rage, intense jealousy, hurt and guilt are often excessively intense and enduring and tend to impact negatively on behaviour and one’s ability to deal with adversity. It is these emotional states that require attention, which is the target of CBT.

It is, however, recognised that depressed mood may well be normal under certain circumstances, such as in the case of bereavement. CBT therapists would not target intense emotion that is perceived as appropriate but may well target the irrational beliefs that individuals have, that may lead to unhealthily avoidant ways of coping with such an emotion. For example, those struggling to allow themselves to grieve the loss of a loved one may be avoiding such emotion as a result of misperceptions such as “feeling depressed and being tearful means that I’m a weak person and that I will crumble if I allow myself to feel this way”.

The goal of CBT is thus to assist individuals in reducing excessively intense emotional states (e.g. depression/anger) that are disabling, and replace these with an emotional experience that is more manageable, less disabling and associated with more appropriate behavioural activation (e.g. sadness/disappointment/frustration).

Written by Bradley Drake and Jaco Rossouw, Centre for Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, Cape Town, South-Africa. For further details visit: www.cognitive-behaviour-therapy.co.za, September 2011.

Back to the series.

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