Emotion-centered Therapy: What It Is And What Problems It Applies To

A review of this type of therapy that focuses on unconscious emotional patterns.

Emotion-focused therapy

The affective-emotional sphere is probably one of the most important when considering our level of well-being.

How we feel and how we react to situations and people around us affect our way of seeing reality (and also ourselves, others and the world itself) and our behavior. But it is not always easy to manage and manage our emotions and the way we structure and link them to events.

Sometimes severe conflicts may appear that may make it necessary to use some type of therapy focused on these factors. Although there are a wide variety of therapies that act on the emotional sphere, there is one that acts in a very specific way on them: therapy focused on emotions.

Emotion-focused therapy: what is it?

It receives the name of therapy focused on emotions or therapy focused on emotions to a type of therapy or psychological treatment that, as its name indicates, is characterized by specifically working on the emotional processing of situations, observing the emotion as an adaptive reaction that allows survival and reaction to the environment as well as making ourselves see our needs.

The therapy itself is deeply experiential, since the presence of changes depends to a large extent on exposure to situations that generate emotions, and this appearance is sought in order to introduce changes in the schemes that we use to face situations. Furthermore, this theory is based largely on the humanist paradigm and client-centered therapy, seeking the development and optimization of the patient’s potential. In fact, emotion-centered therapy was originally called Greenberg’s experiential therapy.

The professional must adopt an empathic and collaborative attitude, always accepting the reactions, emotions and motivations of the client or patient and trying to help detect emotions, focus and develop the subject’s own autonomy, making them responsible for themselves.

The therapy focused on emotions considers that the emotion supposes the emergence of physiological changes derived from the capture, interpretation and processing of external or internal information and our previous learning. Based on experience, we are generating a series of unconscious emotional patterns that lead us to a specific way of reacting or feeling situations, these patterns being what we propose to work during therapy.

The objective of this therapy is to help make patients capable of identifying, experimenting without blocking, attributing a meaning, communicating and adaptively managing their emotions. In short, manage your emotional sphere efficiently and thereby achieve a good capacity to adapt to the environment. This is very useful in a wide variety of situations, such as relational problems or after the presence of unwanted or traumatic experiences.

Main mechanisms for change

With emotion-focused therapy, the aim is to achieve a change in emotional patterns, in the way of capturing, processing and expressing one’s own emotionality. For this, a series of mechanisms must be activated, highlighting the following.

1. Awareness

It is a factor that perhaps seems logical and simple, but it is decisive and is the basis when it comes to introducing a change in emotional patterns. Becoming aware of or being able to distinguish, identify and name one’s own emotions is the most basic and fundamental step.

2. Emotional expression

Once the emotion itself has been identified, it will be necessary to know and be able to express the emotion, especially when we speak of negative emotions. Rather, it is about coping with emotion, living it without introducing an avoidance that protects us against it.

3. Emotional regulation

In addition to identifying and living them, another of the necessary mechanisms to introduce changes is the fact of regulating emotion. Regulating does not imply not feeling it or repressing it, but being able to put a brake on it or make it adaptive to the situation we are in.

4. Reflection

Although cognitive aspects and components already exist in the processing of emotion, it is worth mentioning as another mechanism the ability to operate with information and give meaning to the experience.

5. Transformation

The last of the great mechanisms necessary for changing emotions is transformation, that is, managing to modify the emotional experience to make it adaptive. An example may be the search for experiences that generate emotional responses that are incompatible with the initial emotion.

Situations in which it is usually applied

The therapy focused or focused on emotions is usually used in specific situations and is especially often linked to the treatment of relational problems, although it may have applicability in a large number of problems.

1. Couples therapy

One of the main contexts in which emotion-focused therapy is usually applied is in the world of the couple. And it is that it has been shown that this type of therapy can allow working on emotional conflicts present in each of its members and on the relationship itself.

And it is that this modality allows to work on aspects such as attachment (not in vain it is based in part on attachment theory) and to identify, express and share their emotions and affective needs. In this way, this type of work can allow an improvement in the situation of each component of the couple and improve the existing communication, strengthening the existing bond.

2. Family conflicts

In a similar way to the previous one, therapy focused on emotions could become applicable in the family context, in order to be able to re-elaborate emotional schemes and communicate them efficiently.

3. Socialization problems

People with socialization problems derived from emotional problems can benefit from this type of therapy, learning to transform their feelings and fears and accept them in such a way that they do not interfere with their relationships. Likewise, communication is favored.

4. Eating disorders

Emotion-focused therapy has been used in the case of patients with eating disorders, due, among other aspects, to the high presence of negative emotionality regarding their own self-concept. It seems to be useful at both an individual and a group level, trying to identify, naturalize and modify the emotions that maintain the eating problem.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Emotion-focused therapy could be useful when working on the emotional sphere in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual abuse, school bullying, domestic or gender violence are examples of situations in which it could be applied.


Depressive disorders have as one of the main and most frequent characteristics the existence of emotions such as sadness or hopelessness. Working on the processing of emotions and situations and on the variation of the schemes (both cognitive and emotional) will help the subject to present an improvement in their situation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Brennan, M .; Emmerling, M. & Welton, J. (2015). Emotion-focused group therapy: addressing self-criticism in the treatment of eating disorders. Counseling and Psychotherapy Research, 15 (1), 67-75.
  • Elliot, R .; Watson, JC; Goldman, Rh.N. & Greenberg, LS (2004). Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy. The Process-Experiential Approach to Change. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC
  • Greenberg, LS; Elliott, R. & Pos, A. (2010). Therapy focused on emotions: an overview.
  • Greenberg, L. and Watson, J. (2006). Emotion-focused therapy of depression. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hervás, G. (2011). Psychopathology of emotional regulation: the role of emotional deficits in clinical disorders. Behavioral Psychology, 19 (2): 347-372.

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