‘Feeling’ your way to better mental health

If fighting emotion with emotion sounds unconventional, that’s because it is. Leslie Greenberg, professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Arts, is one of only a handful of researchers on the cutting edge of treatment for psychological trauma and depression using emotion-focused therapy, or EFT – a treatment he pioneered. EFT challenges conventional cognitive-behavioural or logic-based therapies by encouraging clients to “feel” their way to better mental health.

“Cognitive behavioural therapy aims to change the way we think about our emotions. It’s very much focused on regulating or suppressing painful feelings, which can be damaging,” says Greenberg.

EFT, which proves beneficial in both individual and couples therapy, instead advocates exploring the range of emotions associated with traumatic events, and begins a process whereby one negative feeling is exchanged for another, often with opposite emotion. The end result? A direct, positive alteration of clients’ feelings – not just logical processes that act as coping mechanisms.

Right: Leslie Greenberg

As director of York’s Psychotherapy Research Clinic, Greenberg has seen much first-hand evidence that traditional modes of therapy are not working.

“One woman never cried. The message from society was that she was not to shed one tear over her broken relationship, and was simply to move on with her life. Ten years later, she had a panic attack while driving her car. People store all of these things inside and then suddenly, something happens in their lives – maybe the loss of a job, for example – and they totally break down. They simply crumble.”

Greenberg has completed a detailed study to determine how EFT can be used to create the most positive results. Hundreds of hours of videotape from participants’ therapy sessions – encompassing 40 individuals and 40 couples over a period of two years – was transcribed and analyzed for the most minute clues, including unspoken cues like facial expression.

He has identified four stages or, more accurately, “processes” whereby this change in emotion occurs. The client’s awareness and acceptance of his or her feelings if the first stage of the process. The second incorporates “regulation” into the process of healing, as the client must learn to tolerate those emotions and control any self-destructive behaviours that seriously interfere with his or her daily life. By not letting emotions spin out of control, but instead, learning healthy methods of coping with one’s feelings, the client can then fully experience the final processes of transformation and reflection.

Greenberg is currently devoting his attention to emotion-based therapies for depression and forgiveness – the topic of forthcoming books. His professional publications include 71 peer-reviewed papers, 55 book chapters and 14 books. He is a founder of the Society of the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration (SEPI), a founder of the Society for Constructivism in Psychotherapy (SCP), and a past president of the Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR). He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration and the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.