Working With Emotions

One of the most debilitating outcomes of sexual abuse is intense, if not overwhelming emotions. Rage, terror, panic, and high anxiety can become so vehement that they interfere with obligations and derail relationships. These trauma-related emotions contribute to substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidality, which become attempts to reduce emotional pain and regain self-control.

The vehemence of these emotions comes from their connections to survival instincts that have evolved over millions of years. Because they are so intense, they successfully direct all energy towards the perceived threat, and often remain unresolved long after the threat is gone — for a while keeping us on high alert, but eventually too shut down and exhausted to do much of anything.

Another difficulty with emotions following sexual abuse is having limited feelings, especially when avoidance of intimacy is the preferred method for warding off the possibility of more hurt. One of the primary functions of emotions is connection with others, and it’s difficult to have a full emotional life if you are avoiding emotional closeness.

There are a lot of creative ways to avoid intimacy: using emotional outbursts to draw attention from what’s really bothering you; acting defensive to keep people from getting too close; or connecting through false or shallow emotions. Over time, the capacity for a wide range of feelings can seem lost. There is also greater likelihood of getting stuck in certain emotions despite changing environments, careers, and relationships. Some feel as if in a trance, and out of touch with an ever-changing world.

Fortunately, there are ways to resolve trauma-related emotions and resuscitate a full emotional life. Furthermore, working with emotions increases comfort with genuine self-expression, especially when there isn’t fear of further exploitation. When it’s okay to feel and express emotions, a sense of spontaneity and aliveness returns.

In this post, I begin by outlining a neurobiological model of emotions as an explanation of why we work with trauma-related emotions as we do. Then I share a few approaches used by trauma-focused psychotherapies to recover from the emotional affects of trauma.

Affective neuroscience

Some of the most fascinating research on emotions relevant to recovery from trauma comes from affective neuroscience, a topic covered in Jaak Panksepp & Lucy Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind.⁠1 According to affective neuroscience, emotions are one of the most ancient aspects of the mammalian brain and first evolved as distinct affective systems. We retain at least seven of these affective systems in the subcortical region of the brain, which the hierarchical information processing model shared last week associates with sensorimotor processing.

The seven affective systems include:

SEEKING — emotional states of expectancy that drive exploration

FEAR — emotional states of anxiety

RAGE — emotional states of anger

LUST — emotional states of sexual excitement

CARE — emotional states of nurturance

PANIC/GRIEF — emotional states of pain and sadness associated with separation and loss

PLAY — emotional states of social joy

Panksepp and Biven call these emotions ancestral memories, which over millions of years became instinctual reactions to anticipated environmental and social conditions.⁠2 For instance, in response to threats, we have evolved to feel FEAR, and in reaction to loss, we have evolved to feel GRIEF. The seven affective systems also combine to produce the seemingly infinite variety of feelings we experience. Furthermore, all of the affective systems function simultaneously and influence each another, sometimes in reparative ways. For example, evidence suggests that when the FEAR system is activated, cortisol is released, which in excess amounts leads to depression and can cause hippocampal cells to die. However, activity in the PLAY (social joy) affective system, such as during conditions that promote laughter, may lead to neuronal growth in the hippocampus.⁠3

The affective systems, along with homeostatic drives (such as relieving thirst and hunger) and sensorimotor sensations that lead us to seek pleasure and avoid pain, make up the primary processes of the brain. Vehement, trauma-related emotions arise from this region of the brain.

We can never completely ‘know’ primary process emotions through conscious, neocortical processes. Instead, we relate to them much as we do all of life’s great mysteries: by using symbols and metaphors to describe their ineffable qualities. We also use our bodies to communicate and feel emotions. Hence the power of a poem to resonate precisely with what we are feeling or a hug to express genuine care.

Furthermore, we cannot consciously decide not to arouse our affective systems. Even when these primary process emotions are suppressed or dissociated from awareness, they nevertheless are processing stimuli and creating reactions, whether as delayed emotional outbursts or as diseases of the body when habitually dissociated or suppressed, much as literature on adverse childhood experiences and other forms of chronic stress, abuse, and oppression have shown.⁠4

Throughout the course of mammalian evolution, secondary and tertiary emotional processes evolved. Together, all three processes — the primary, secondary, and tertiary — somewhat parallel the hierarchical model of information processing provided last week — body, emotions, cognitions — except the focus is on states and traits that emerge in relation to the seven affective systems associated with the primary processes of the brain.

Like primary processes, secondary processes are unconscious. Yet rather than deriving from instinct (and “ancestral memories”), secondary processes are the result of classical, fear, and operant forms of conditioning. Panksepp and Biven give as an example of a secondary process how a rat learns to associate the sound of a bell on a cat’s collar with the presence of danger. Once learned, the rat reacts to the sound much like it would instinctively to the presence of the cat. The same type of process contributes to trauma triggers in humans. However, we have the capacity to develop reflective awareness of such conditioning, and thus change how we respond. Nevertheless, the tendency is to react first and reflect later.

Tertiary processes evolved in conjunction with the expansion of the cortical regions of the brain that support living in complex social groups for which having a wide range of feelings is an evolutionary advantage. Tertiary processes include episodic memories that include feeling tone, along with reflections on emotions and their symbolic representations. Through connections between emotions and cognitions, we also give value, meaning, and preference to certain memories, people, circumstances, ideas, and goals. We also use tertiary processes to discern differences between emotional states and use a lexicon of emotional terms to describe what we feel.  And through all of these tertiary processes we gain variety and richness in feelings. As Panksepp and Biven noted, “Multiple emotional streams may cross in the thinking mind, creating an enormous variety of higher emotions that are often the focus of psychologists — pride, shame, confidence, guilt, jealousy, trust, disgust, dominance, and so forth with hundreds of possible variants.”⁠5

Working with emotions

Differences between the three processes create opportunities for diminishing or resolving vehement, trauma-related emotions. We can use cognitions (tertiary processes) to consciously change how we think about our emotions (for example, being curious rather than judgmental), thus gaining a measure of distance from feelings. We can also change our conditioned responses (secondary processes) and thus alter how we are affected by instinctual drives like fight and flight (primary processes) that cause terror, rage, and high anxiety.

Probably the best way to mollify vehement emotions is through secondary processes. Especially when triggered by traumatic reminders, and vehement emotions arise outside of conscious awareness and control, reflecting on or talking about emotions isn’t usually helpful. Furthermore, it’s not healthy to allow trauma-related emotions to just take their course, as is sometimes done when emotional release is used as a catharsis. In fact, when overwhelmed, it’s often better not to try to ‘get in touch’ with your emotions, or analyze why they are happening. It’s better to either get away from the stimuli that is triggering you — such as taking a time out in your relationship if your emotions are too overwhelming to process — or work with your body to identify sensorimotor states that bring you back into the window of tolerance.

When you work with your body to calm emotions, you are taking advantage of secondary processes, and the inborn capacity to condition your responses to stimuli (both within you environment and within yourself). Exercises in the Window of Tolerance Guide can be especially helpful with this. By engaging with your body in new and calming ways, you condition yourself to respond differently to emotional overwhelm. The more habitual you become in changing your reactions to trauma-related emotions, the more likely you are to condition your body to react differently to perceived threats.

You can also change your thoughts or redirect your attention (tertiary processes), as well as find something to distract you from your emotions — like taking a walk or a bath, creating art, cleaning house, dancing while listening to music, wrapping yourself in a heavy blanket, or watching feel-good videos. However, somatic-based interventions are more likely to contribute to lasting change, especially when done mindfully. Nevertheless, when emotions are overwhelming, your body, cognitions, and external distractions are all resources for dealing with the distress.

Once calm, and back in your window of tolerance (perhaps even a couple of days later), is a good time to reflect on what happened, and try to identify triggers that led to overwhelming emotions. This is also an opportunity to make plans for how to self-regulate or self-soothe in the future to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

When calm is also a good time to mindfully expand awareness of emotions. By regularly making efforts to identify emotions, and create conditions that support how you want to feel, you help resuscitate your capacity for varied and genuine emotions. Making such efforts also brings back a sense of aliveness and supports greater intimacy. Again, mindfulness is the foundation for change.

Creating a more dynamic and authentic emotional life takes advantage of tertiary processes and the ability to names emotions and discern the conditions in which they occur. You can support this style of emotional awareness by creating columns on a text document or in your journal, where you write in one column the events, people, and places you encounter throughout your day and in another column what you felt. No judgment, just mindful observing. There are also a lot of lists of feeling words online that can help fine tune awareness of what you are feeling.

You can further deepen this practice by identifying any sensorimotor reactions you had in a third column, such as sensations in your body, changes in posture, or what you noticed through the five senses. Again, just observing, no judging. (And only do any exercise I suggest if it feels safe and right for you.)

Marsha Linehan’s dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is also available in many communities, which is a mindfulness-based program that promotes emotional regulation, improved relationship skills, and distress tolerance. If you feel you would benefit from support with your emotions, I recommend trying to find a DBT program in your area, especially if overwhelming emotions are contributing to self-harm or suicidality. Some of the handouts used in DBT groups are available online (and found with a simple search), including handouts used to increase emotional awareness and increase distress tolerance.

Questions & activities to ponder: Do your emotions ever overwhelm you? If so, which emotions? Using the Window of Tolerance Guide, identify for each of these emotions a method for bringing yourself back in the window of tolerance. 

Of all the emotions you can think of, which ones do you like to feel? Are there certain memories that you associate with these desired emotions? Reflect on those memories and pinpoint what contributed to how you felt. Was it beliefs you held about yourself or life? How you felt in your body? What you were doing? The person or people with you? How might you foster those emotions in your present life?

See you next week,


Please note:

Sometimes internal stimuli trigger trauma-related emotions, such as a mental image of the abuse, and sometimes something benign in the environment is the cause. Sometimes, however, the trigger is real danger, signaling a need to change environments, relationships, or behaviors. These are important to distinguish. Especially if you grew up living with or near your perpetrator(s), or if your abuse was chronic, you may have developed the habit of dissociating feelings of fear, or using substances, eating disorders, self-harm, or suicidality to avoid feeling overwhelmed in a situation you could not escape. As a result, you become conditioned not to react to fear as signaling danger that you need to avoid or escape. When the decision is made to start working with emotions rather than avoiding them, feeling fear may actually be a sign that you need to protect yourself. In future posts I’ll write more about the increased likelihood of revictimization following a history of sexual abuse. Here I want to stress that if you are in a domestic violence relationship, or other violent situation, it’s vital for your recovery, if not your life, that you seek the appropriate professional support that can help ensure your safety.


1 Panksepp, Jaak & Biven, Lucy. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

2 Panksepp and Biven, p. 20.

3 Ibid, p. xiii.

4 Dude, Shanta R., Anda, Robert F., Whitfield, Charles L., Brown, David W., Felitti, Vincent J., Dong, Maxia & Giles, Wayne H. (2005). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 28 (5), 430-438.

5 Ibid., p. xi.


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).