Emotional processing in experiential therapy: why "the only way out is through."

J Consult Clin Psychol. 2007 Dec;75(6):875-87. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.75.6.875.


The purpose of this study was to examine observable moment-by-moment steps in emotional processing as they occurred within productive sessions of experiential therapy. Global distress was identified as an unprocessed emotion with high arousal and low meaningfulness. The investigation consisted of 2 studies as part of a task analysis that examined clients processing distress in live video-recorded therapy sessions. Clients in both studies were adults in experiential therapy for depression and ongoing interpersonal problems. Study 1 was the discovery-oriented phase of task analysis, which intensively examined 6 examples of global distress. The qualitative findings produced a model showing: global distress, fear, shame, and aggressive anger as undifferentiated and insufficiently processed emotions; the articulation of needs and negative self-evaluations as a pivotal step in change; and assertive anger, self-soothing, hurt, and grief as states of advanced processing. Study 2 tested the model using a sample of 34 clients in global distress. A multivariate analysis of variance showed that the model of emotional processing predicted positive in-session effects, and bootstrapping analyses were used to demonstrate that distinct emotions emerged moment by moment in predicted sequential patterns.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Anger
  • Attitude*
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Depression / psychology
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Grief
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychotherapy*
  • Self Efficacy