As Laura shared her story with me, her eyes filled with tears. Recognizing an emotion, I invited her to slow down and pay attention to the feeling of sadness in her body. She stopped speaking and focused inward. As she did, the sadness increased allowing her tears to flow freely, unencumbered by conflict, as I sat quietly with her.
Soon the wave of Laura's sadness passed. I then gently directed her to stay focused on what was happening in her body now that the sadness had been released. After about 30 seconds, she looked up at me with bright-eyes. “I feel calmer now,” she said. “I really was a very sad child,” Laura reported with newfound insight, clarity, self-compassion and recognition for how her parents’ difficulties had affected her.
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to become a psychoanalyst — like Freud. And that is exactly what I did. And then I learned of an entirely new way of working where the focus was not only on helping a person gain insight, but also on fostering a lasting and deeply healing experience.
I first heard about this new way of working at a conference on emotions and attachment. It was there that I watched videos showing therapists skillfully and gently guiding patients into their emotions by focusing on the physical sensations that came along with each emotion. Fascinated, I had never seen anything like it. Since that time, experiential methods have become my focus. I am now certified (and even supervise therapists in training) in an experiential form of psychotherapy called AEDP: Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. Whereas in my analytic work I was taught to listen passively to my patients (or clients, depending on what word you prefer), experiential work is more directed. I typically say, “I am interested in everything you have to say AND I am wondering if we could slow way down to notice what you are experiencing as you share with me how your boss criticized you, for example. This type of intervention helps a person recognize not only the thoughts in their mind, but also what they are experiencing below the neck.
Experiential work like AEDP is therapeutic — healing and transformational — for many reasons. Here are four:
Experiential work actively cultivates a mindful, non-judgmental, compassionate stance that helps a person become aware of their inner experiences and changes the brain for the better.
Experiential work helps people get in touch with their core emotions (sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, disgust, etc.). The purpose is to name the emotions we feel and to learn to use our emotions for wellbeing, instead of being controlled by them, or burying them, which leads to problems.
Experiential work diminishes anxieties and other symptoms in predictable, reproducible ways, which is why it is considered healing-oriented as opposed to insight-oriented psychotherapy.
Experiential work teaches people to become their own therapist, giving them practical life skills to work with their emotions and the emotions of others in ways that are constructive.
To help illustrate the difference between “traditional” talk therapy and experiential psychotherapy (again, AEDP in this case), here is an example of what an intervention in each method looks like:
Patient: My boss really upset me this week. I did a huge report for him that wasn’t even my job and he didn’t so much as say thank you. In fact, he talked about it in a meeting like he did all the work instead of me.
Psychoanalytic Therapist: sounds like you didn’t like that. Tell me more…
The traditional talk therapist adapts a neutral stance and focuses on the content of the story. The therapist listens openly and makes interpretations to help create meaning or identify irrational thoughts. Insight, of course, is important and at the same time, I have learned that there is so much more we can do to create wellbeing. Attending to underlying emotions, for example, helps people feel more immediately alive and ultimately more comfortable in their skin. And greater insight often follows an emotional experience.
Here’s the experiential version:
Patient: My boss really upset me this week. I did a huge report for him that wasn’t even my job and he didn’t even say thank you. In fact, he talked about it in a meeting like he did all the work instead of me.
Experiential Therapist: I see feeling in your face and I notice your hands are making fists. Do you notice that? Can we slow way down so you can stay with what is happening inside as you share your story with me now?
The experiential psychotherapist notices both verbal and non-verbal communication of emotion. We want to help a person understand, deepen, release, and ultimately make positive use of their emotions. Actively creating safety during this process is a top priority. If, in a moment, a patient's anxiety spikes or they feel too vulnerable or embarrassed, AEDP therapists are taught to actively calm anxiety and shame in the moment using the connection they have with the patient and various techniques.
Continuing with the example above, once a person is in contact with the visceral experience of anger, the therapist teaches her to release the impulse in constructive ways, rather than acting out or acting in. One way to process anger in a constructive way uses a fantasy to express an impulse. Another way to process anger is to stay with the visceral sensations that anger evokes until something in the body shifts or releases.
There are many different kinds of experiential therapies: Accelerated Experience Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), Affect Phobia Therapy (APT), Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), Gestalt Therapy, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi, Psychodrama, Expressive Arts Therapy, Equine Therapy, Dance Therapy and more.
I gravitated towards AEDP because it was firmly grounded in current neuroscience, trauma theory, and in how to use emotions for positive transformation. AEDP builds and expands on people’s strengths, not only focusing on their struggles. The AEDP psychotherapist has permission to be authentic and authentically caring, which feels right. The stance of the therapist is informed by excellent research in attachment. Providing an emotionally safe environment for the patient makes it possible for them to explore new parts of themselves that were, until now, too scary or shameful to approach.
To heal the mind, we need to experience the emotions that go with our stories. Sometimes we need assistance connecting to our emotions. The same way we avoid painful or conflicting emotions in our everyday lives is the same way we avoid emotions in therapy sessions. Avoidance is not intentional, it’s just how the mind habitually protects itself from pain. An experiential therapist helps people safely get in touch with what they are feeling and defending against feeling in the here and now of the moment, as they share their stories.
Enhancing emotional capacity offers a host of benefits including increased self-confidence, courage, curiosity and compassion (in ourself and others), calmness, connectedness, and clarity of thought. Being in touch with our core emotions and having skills to process them increases our vitality--we feel more alive! Our relationships also benefit greatly when we understand and constructively deal with our emotions.
While my psychoanalytic education serves me in my thinking, my experiential training allows me to foster predictable healing in my patients who come in with anxiety, depression and other symptoms. All therapists and patients must find the models that work best for them and that feel most comfortable. Still, I encourage therapists and perspective patients alike to familiarize themselves with AEDP and other experiential ways of working like ISTDP, APT, and SE. Learning to notice and deepen emotional experience is truly a gift both personally and professionally and can be incorporated into most other models.
For both therapists and non-therapists alike who want an accessible read to learn how to work with emotions on our own or with a therapist, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018)