Is Abreaction (Emotional Expression) During a Session Desirable?

Emotional expression during a session is called abreaction. According to the online Oxford dictionary, an abreaction is “the expression and consequent release of a previously repressed emotion, achieved through reliving the experience that caused it”. However, is this actually useful?

Dan Siegel’s “Window Of Tolerance”

Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, first coined the term “Window of Tolerance” in his book The Developing Mind in 1999. It is closely linked to Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory. The basic premise is that our nervous systems cycle from greater to lesser activation, and back, all through the day. For example, we get up to open the door, activation increases, we sit down to read a book, activation decreases. This is normal and we are not distressed by these cycles.

However, when something happens that activates our nervous systems too much, it can push us outside of the window of tolerance. In this case, we may experience more stress symptoms, for example, a racing heart or sweating palms. For those of us who have unresolved trauma in our systems, going outside of the window of tolerance can quickly send us into a flashback. This means experiencing the memory of the original event, as emotions or other sensations in the body.

When Is Abreaction Not Therapeutic?

When I learnt to do bodywork, I was taught to help clients to have big emotional releases. This, the theory said, would help to clear out any blockages from the body. It made sense, however, what I soon started to notice was that even following big emotional releases, some clients were coming back with the same issues. This got me thinking, researching, and doing more training.

I have since come to realise that there are different schools on thought on abreaction and that in some, or even many, cases this practice may not be therapeutic.

If clients experience emotional releases during sessions that are too far outside of their windows of tolerance, then this is not helpful, and can even be re-traumatising. This is why I now monitor the state of arousal of my clients’ nervous systems, to ensure that it doesn’t build higher than would be helpful. I also teach clients how to down regulate (calm) if the arousal builds too high.

When Is Abreaction Helpful?

It can indeed be helpful and therapeutic to experience emotions, and emotional release during sessions. However, for this to happen, the arousal of the nervous system needs to be lower. In terms of the concept of the Window of Tolerance, we don’t want to be too far outside of what’s tolerable for us. And whilst it can be helpful to gently stretch it over time, the benefit will be gained if this doesn’t happen faster or sooner than the client is ready for. Going at the right pace can lead to benefits such as post traumatic growth.

For more information about individual and couples sessions I offer in Teesside, London and online, please get in touch.

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