What is emotion-focused therapy and its benefits?

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is a psychotherapy approach that is based on the premise that our emotions key into our identity. According to the EFT theory, emotions are an individual’s guide to making choices, as well as having a large part in decision making. Traditionally, EFT takes place at the psychiatrist’s office but with the advent of top rated online therapy, it is more accessible than ever. In this article, we are going to explore exactly what constitutes EFT, the techniques used, the ways in which the therapy helps patients, as well as its benefits and limitations.

What is emotion-focused therapy?

The approach that EFT takes is one of collaboration. Both the therapist and the patient collaborate together and are viewed as equal contributors. One that is most capable of interpreting their emotional experiences, of course, is the patient. The very idea of emotion-focused therapy’s theory is that emotions should be utilized to guide individuals to lead healthy and meaningful lives. The theory’s base comes from scientific research into the human emotional experience.

The basic underlying principles of science behind EFT are:

  • How we produce emotions
  • The importance of emotions
  • How emotions tie into behavior and thought

Another core philosophy of EFT is an “emotion scheme”. These schemes serve as models that provide an outline of how a patient can:

  • Experience emotions physically
  • Undergo physiologic changes due to emotions
  • Guide future actions based on emotions
  • Influence thinking
person screaming
Our emotions are extremely powerful.

What EFT does is help people both change and accept their personal emotional schemes, as well as provide a way to change the way a person thinks about their emotions.

EFT techniques

A patient undergoing EFT will usually look to develop two key skills: Arriving at their emotions through acceptance and increased awareness and learning to transform their emotions and utilize the information from them to avoid harmful or negative behavior.

Therapists who practice EFT take a non-judgmental approach to their patients, focusing mostly on listening and questioning in a reflective manner. What this does is allow the person who is undergoing therapy to better understand their own emotions. After that is established, emotional coaching comes next. Emotion coaching helps patients learn about new ways how they can utilize healthy emotions to guide their future actions. An added effect of emotion coaching is the fact that it can help people move away from challenging emotions and move on with their lives.

The first few sessions involve patients arriving at their emotions, with a few set goals in mind:

  • Becoming more aware of one’s emotions
  • Learning to describe emotions clearly, as well as in detail
  • Learning to allow, regulate, and welcome emotions
  • Increasing awareness of one’s emotional experiences and learning how to identify the most direct reaction

Once this phase is over, the next phase focuses on “leaving”. This phase has the following goals:

  • Identifying the source of unhelpful emotions
  • Learning to use helpful emotions to guide a patient’s actions
  • Evaluating whether emotions are helpful or unhelpful, depending on the situation
  • Learning how to change unhelpful emotions
  • Developing an alternative, healthy, way of coping with situations that create unhelpful emotions
  • Forming personal scripts that can help challenge any destructive thoughts the patient might have

ETF works best if the patient is already aware of their emotional experience. Patients who have a higher ability to regulate their emotions will find it easier to achieve their goals.

EFT for couples

As a couples therapy, EFT provides a structured approach that features a humanistic, experiential, approach to relationships. It allows couples to restructure their emotional experiences and increase the quality of their interactions. The goals of EFT for couples are to expand and re-organize key emotional responses. By doing so, couples learn how to organize their own, and their partner’s emotions better. EFT also creates a positive shift in interactional patterns and positions between partners, and it fosters a creation of a secure bond.

two people holding hands
EFT can help couples get in sync with one another.

Studies show that EFT is an extremely successful form of couples therapy, with more than 75% of couples managing to “fix” their issues, and almost 90% showing clear signs of improvement. This treatment works in almost any cultural group, among various educational levels. The practice is especially prevalent in North America, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa. It also includes treatment for same-sex couples.

EFT for individuals

When working with individuals, EFT offers corrective experiences that can positively impact patients and provide lasting, stable, change. Emotions are the main focus, of course, and they have precedent over other treatment modalities. The therapy can enable patients to move into engagements that are open, accessible, and responsive. Lastly, it provides patients with a coherent sense of a competent self, one that can deal with any existential life issues that might come up.

How does EFT help?

For most people, controlling their emotions is very hard. Feelings of depression, or anxiety, usually result in the individual actively avoiding any situations that might cause their mood to drop. In severe cases, these feelings can be quite debilitating. What emotion-focused therapy does is allow people to realize that their emotions provide valuable information, as opposed to simply being painful or difficult. EFT helps patients with experiencing these emotions in a healthy manner, rather than suppressing them. Through the therapy, patients learn how to regulate the impact the emotions have on their mental wellbeing.

Due to this fact, EFT can be highly effective in dealing with a large variety of issues, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Borderline personality
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Childhood neglect/abuse
  • Eating disorders

One thing to note is that EFT was first used to treat depression and later expanded to treat other mental disorders as well. Lastly, even couples in distress can benefit from EFT, as regulating emotions might be all the “nudge” that a couple might need.

Benefits of emotion-focused therapy

EFT provides numerous benefits to patients. The first obvious benefit is the increased understanding of your own needs. Most of the time, we are going through life without actually knowing what is it that we need to make us happy. EFT helps us discover this by analyzing our emotions and how and when those emotions appear. Next, EFT helps patients better understand the needs of their partners, friends, and other people that are important to them. By knowing how people experience emotions, one gains a much greater understanding of the inner workings of the human mind.

three checkboxes of emotion-focused therapy
By analyzing our emotions, we learn how to better ourselves.

Furthermore, EFT provides patients with the ability to talk about problems with empathy. It is very easy to escalate emotions, after all, but it is very difficult to fully understand what you and the other person are feeling. This also leads to learning about attachment insecurities and the ways how they can be handled. EFT focuses on finding the cause of a patient’s problems instead of focusing on the symptoms. The therapist’s job is to identify the key variables of their patient’s emotional states.

Patients that undergo EFT show happier, healthier, relationships, ones that last for a long time. While emotion-focused therapy was traditionally reserved for therapist offices, today individuals and couples can easily have access to it through the internet.

EFT Limitations

While EFT might be a great form of psychotherapy, it does have some limitations. For example, certain psychological issues such as panic or impulse control are hard to rectify with EFT. The problem with these issues is that they include much more than emotions. Panic, for example, can include bodily sensations, thoughts, as well as feelings. Emotion-focused therapy helps people be more responsive to internal experiences and is not recommended for the treatment of such issues.

Another big limitation is that EFT requires patients to be open and honest. This is a huge problem, as the whole theory behind EFT is based on patients’ understanding of their emotions. If the patient lies or hides something from their therapist, the therapy becomes much less effective, even detrimental in some cases.

Lastly, EFT is not a therapy that serves to fix mental issues on its own. What it does is improves one’s overall functioning, which leads to improvement in mental health. It is not effective for dealing with specific symptoms.

Emotion-focused therapy FAQ

How long does EFT take?

Emotion-focused therapy usually takes anywhere between 8 and 20 sessions. This period of time is required to bring individuals and/or their relationships through all the stages of the therapy. Within this timeframe, both the therapist and the patient will identify emotional patterns, as well as patterns within the relationships. During the length of the sessions, patients will take the necessary steps to improve their quality of life.

What type of therapy is emotion-focused therapy?

EFT is a humanistic type of psychotherapy that is constructed with adult attachment science. The EFT model focuses on emotions and their regulation and considers them to be the critical agent in interpersonal interactions, as well as personal experiences.

Does EFT work?

Depending on the mental issue, EFT has high rates of success. For example, more than 70% of patients report that EFT takes away their distress, while almost 90% of all couples show significant improvements.

person looking at a sunrise
EFT is an extremely successful form of psychotherapy.

What are EFT stages?

EFT is conducted in three stages, consisting of nine steps in total. Before proceeding to the three stages, the patient and therapist must first build an alliance of sorts. Once that is established, they proceed to the first stage, which is Assess and De-escalate stage. The second phase is the Change Events stage, while the last one is the Consolidation and Change stage. The first stage has the therapist uncovering the underlying emotional responses, whereas the second stage involves developing a corrective emotional answer to situations. The last stage will see patients resolve any old problems they might have, leaning on everything that they have learned.

How does EFT affect our brain?

According to some recent studies, what EFT does is alter the brain’s representation of “threat cues“. These cues are usually found in the patient and might hamper their ability to create an appropriate emotional answer under pressure. EFT utilizes an fMRI-based process to achieve mitigation of social regulation of neural threat responders.

Can EFT cure anxiety?

While EFT mainly focuses on dealing with depression, it can be a very effective treatment method for anxiety as well. The applications of EFT are universal, after all, and can help patients with a variety of mental conditions.

Are there any contraindications?

While undergoing EFT, patients may experience short-term contraindications. These include any conditions that may result in a lack of control over emotions (e.g. panic disorder, impulse disorder, etc.). If these contraindications happen, patients need to undergo emotion suppression therapy before continuing with phase two of EFT.

Will I see results straight away?

It is advisable that patients approach EFT without putting too much pressure on immediate results. The therapy has several stages, after all, and patients need to go through them one week at a time. Patients need to focus on achieving results according to the phase they are going through.

Most patients will not see immediate results, or at least the results they anticipate. But for some patients, simply being aware of the impact that emotions have on their life can be a life-changing experience. It is something that is highly individual.

What level of participation is required from the patients?

Emotion-focused therapy requires active participation from the patient’s side. Of course, the therapist takes a large role in the process but patients need to be open and honest with their true emotions. Only by doing so can they identify their unique attachment styles, both present, and past.

Emotion-focused therapy presents a unique opportunity for many patients to better their mental health and their overall quality of life. If you want to know more about how to improve mental health, explore the rest of the Consumer Opinion Guide, as we have articles on every type of psychotherapy, as well as an overview of top companies that provide the treatments.

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