Beginning  EFT  therapists  sometimes  feel  caught in  a  cul-de-sac  of  reflecting  and  evoking  feelings and  then  asking  themselves, 

“What  next?  How do I  engage  the  partners  in  accessing  and  unpacking more  of  their  experience?” 

Let us take a well known, simple example, used by J.  Ledoux  in  The  Emotional  Brain,  that  illustrates how  emotions,  wired  into  us  by  evolution,  help  us to survive and propel us toward actions long before we have time to engage in conscious thought.  We are walking through a forest and we nearly step on a coiled object. We jump back horrified that we may have incurred terrible danger, before looking more closely  and  seeing  that  we  nearly  trod  on  a  coil  of rope.  Whew, a close shave!  What  happened  here was  that  we  saw  something  that  was  potentially dangerous  –  a  poisonous  snake!  The  sight  of  the coil  was  the  cue  that  was  rapidly  assessed  by  our limbic system, and we jump back and discover that our  pulse  is  racing  and  we  are  breathing  hard. We just made a preconscious limbic appraisal – is this environmental cue safe or dangerous?

There  is  also  EMOTION  here  –  the  primary,  first-felt emotion of course was fear – although we may actually  only  be  aware  that  we  feel  relief.  Possibly we  may  also  feel  secondary  anger:

“Who  left  that coil  of  rope  there  to  scare  me  anyway!!”

These are the elements of emotion in action. Whether or not we consciously recognized our  fear,  this  emotion motivates us to act in the face of danger.
If we are walking through the jungle, we are more likely to be vigilant for danger than if we are in our own back yard.  Apply  this  concept  to  the  most important thing in our lives, our close relationships:  When  we  feel  safe,  secure  and  loved,  we  are  less likely  to  be  reactive  to  a  moment  of  disagreement or impatience, whereas when we feel insecure and unloved  we  may  become  as  ‘on  guard’  as  we  are when we walk through the jungle.

Let us now take the elements described above one at a time and see how distressed couples might react to each other:

1.  Cue – Emotion is triggered by a cue. We are always reacting to external signals received through sensory channels.  Distressed couples are  exquisitely  attuned  to  each  other  and  react rapidly  to  facial  expressions,  body  language or  tone  of  voice.  One glance of that lowered eyelid or tense jaw signals danger of a partner’s displeasure. Alternatively, a partner may react to an inexpressive face, sensing distance and an indication that the partner is unavailable.

2.  Limbic Appraisal – This is a preliminary, rapid assessment of safety or danger that is pre-conscious and pre-verbal. In distressed couples, it becomes the “Oh-oh!” alarm bell in the negative cycle, long before any relationship-threatening thoughts are formulated.

3.  Physiological Arousal – Once a cue is appraised as dangerous, there follows a physiological response (heart racing, head-pounding, knots in stomach). The body is preparing for a fight, flight or freeze survival response. Clients are frequently unaware of this response; however, Gottman found that in withdrawn, stonewalling men, heart rate and blood pressure increased sharply in response to cues that their spouses were displeased with them. It seems the body senses before the mind knows.

4.  Cognitive Appraisal – We then attempt to make sense out of the bodily arousal we are experiencing. In our primary relationships, we tend to create attachment-threatening meanings such as

 “He is not there for me”; “She is not safe”; “I am failing in her eyes”; “I am not good enough for him”.

These attachment meanings, made to explain the bodily felt arousal and the cue we perceived, are responses to the limbic danger bell.  The primary feelings such as fear, panic or shame reinforced by such thoughts often go underground after a fleeting nanosecond, and are replaced by secondary emotions such as anger, despair or numbness.

5.  Action Tendencies – These are verbal and non-verbal behavioral responses to the fight or flight arousal. They may include total silence or the subtle signs of bodily arousal such as tension in voice tone or strained facial muscles. We all have our own habitual methods of dealing with threat. Some partners pursue, demand and/or attack while others have learned to distance, defend, counter attack or use a combination of methods. These are responses to the momentarily felt  attachment  panic  that  had  been  rapidly overlaid  by  protective  secondary  anger,  despair or numbness.

6.  The action tendencies of one partner are then quickly recognized by a distressed partner and in turn become the cues or triggers for the second partner’s limbic brain to sound the alarm bell warning of attachment danger (attachment panic). And once again, primary emotions like fear, panic or shame are likely to be pushed underground and covered with less vulnerable emotions. The partner will more likely engage in his own action tendencies of protective distancing or blaming.

The infinity loop metaphor which Scott  Woolley developed  to illustrate the cycle between partners nicely illustrates the elements of the process of emotion  in  action:    each side of the loops represents  one partner  as  he  or  she  reacts  to  cues  from  the  other. The entire loop represents how, as a system, each partner triggers and reacts to the other.

In order  to  join  with  a  couple  in  de-escalating their  negative  cycle,  each  element  in  this  process of  emotion  needs  to  be  noticed  and  followed (reflected, experienced and shared in dialogue with partners).   The elements  of  emotion  which  are  not apparent  or within  partners’  awareness  need  to be evoked and expanded.  EFT Steps One and Two typically include awareness of the parts above the dotted line in the infinity loop. These include cues, behaviours, appraisals and secondary emotions.
Steps Three  and  Four  of  EFT  involve  accessing  the underlying primary attachment emotions and how  they  can  be  triggered  in  the  cycle.  For example, when one partner  is  critical  and  blaming,  this  can cue  feelings  of  inadequacy,  worthlessness  and fear of  failure  and rejection  in  the  other  which can  cause  attachment  panic 

 “I  will  surely lose  her as  I  am  such  a  disappointment  to  her”

Similarly, actions  of  withdrawal and  distancing  can  trigger a  partner’s  attachment  panic,  often  in  the  form  of abject  loneliness  and  fears  of  being  unimportant and abandoned.

The  EFT  therapist  is  continually  watching  for markers  of  underlying  emotions  that  are  on  the leading  edge  of  awareness.    For example, a client expresses reactive secondary emotion: 

 “I am so exasperated with him!  I have tried ten ways to get his attention, and he doesn’t hear me!”

The first task is to validate the secondary emotion:

“Of course you are frustrated with him when it seems to you that he is not taking time to hear you.”

This helps the client to feel seen and immediately brings down the level of anxiety/ reactivity in the room, which then opens the door for furthering exploration and linking the elements to each other. 

To further unpack the emotion, the therapist sandwiches reflections  with  evocative  questions such  as  the  following,  to  access  the  different elements of emotion:

In the context of the client’s appraisal, the implied attachment meaning is:

 “I do not matter enough and am not important / loveable enough for him to bother with me.” 

After validating the reactive secondary emotion in the context of this delineated experience, there is more safety to evoke primary attachment emotions that are minimized, avoided or discounted.

Holding in mind the information processing model of emotion as it unfolds in these series of cue-feeling-meaning-action elements (discussed in this article) is immeasurably valuable to the EFT therapist in tracking the cycle and accurately joining with our clients’ experiential worlds while they work to discover their hidden unmet attachment needs. The (physical) feeling is an access road to the initial raw felt sense of attachment panic, the primary emotional experience underlying secondary anger or the numbing that fuels the cycle. This vague bodily sense needs to be up and running so the EFT therapist  can  help  partners  move  beyond  simply naming  primary  emotions,  into  processing  and reprocessing  fears  and  anguish  about  being  alone and  unacceptable,  and  to  eventually  risk  reaching coherently  and  clearly  for  their  attachment  needs to be met.

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