027: Scared Stiff — The Hidden Emotion Model (Part 5)

027: Scared Stiff — The Hidden Emotion Model (Part 5)

Fabrice launches this Podcast by asking David to remind us about the differences between healthy fear and unhealthy, neurotic anxiety, or an anxiety “disorder” like a phobia, or OCD, and so forth. David explains that negative thoughts, and not events, trigger all our emotions, healthy or unhealthy. However, healthy fear results from negative thoughts that are valid and undistorted, and does not need treatment. For example, if you are walking around Chicago in an area dominated by gangs, you may have the thought, “I could get shot. I better be careful because it’s dangerous here!” Your fear is healthy and can keep you vigilant and alive in a genuinely dangerous situation.

In contrast, neurotic, unhealthy anxiety results from thoughts that contain the same ten cognitive distortions that cause depression, such as All-or-Nothing Thinking, Jumping to Conclusions (e.g. Mind-Reading and Fortune-Telling), Emotional Reasoning, Magnification, Should Statements, and more.

David explains that the Hidden Emotion Model is radically different from CBT, exposure therapy, and most other current treatments for anxiety. The theory behind Hidden Emotion Technique is that “niceness” is the cause of (almost) all anxiety in the United States at this time. In other words, people who are prone to anxiety typically think they have to be nice all the time, and please other people, and not have certain kinds of forbidden feelings, such as anger, or loneliness, or even wanting something you are not supposed to want.

David brings this powerful treatment technique to life with a vignette involving Terry, the woman with ten years of terrifying panic attacks described in previous podcast. When David asked about her very first panic attack, ten years earlier some amazing and illuminating information emerged.

David gives tips on how therapists can use the Hidden Emotion Model,

  1. The hidden emotion or conflict is buried in the present, and not in the past.
  2. It is something very ordinary, such as not liking your job, or your major in college, or a conflict with a friend, family member or colleague.
  3. The anxiety is nearly always a symbolic expression of the feeling or problem the patient is not bringing to conscious awareness. David gives listeners an exercise to see if they can pinpoint the symbolic meaning of Terry’s panic attacks.

Fabrice asks the important question—what do you do when the anxious patient insists that there aren’t any hidden feelings? David explains that most anxious individuals will say that, and describes how to bring the hidden feeling or problem to conscious awareness.

He emphasizes the three things he really likes about the Hidden Emotion Model:

  1. It explains the timing of anxiety attacks, so it has tremendous explanatory power. Freud said that anxiety is the mysterious emotion, that comes out of the blue, and strikes like lightning, without rhyme or reason. David disagrees, and emphasizes that anxiety rarely or never comes from out of the blue.
  2. The Hidden Emotion Model can have powerful and rapid healing effects for patients with every type of anxiety, as well as individuals struggling with hypochondriasis and those who go to medical doctors with complaints of pain, fatigue, or dizziness that does not appear to have a valid medical cause.
  3. The Hidden Emotion Model teaches us that the ultimate cause of most anxiety is the fear of the self, of our emotions and how we genuinely feel as human beings.
  4. The Hidden Emotion Model teaches us that recovery from anxiety does not involve recovery from some “defect” or “mental disorder,” but rather the discovery of what it is like to be human being, with all of our feelings, and that it is okay to have an express those feelings.

Finally, David explains that while this technique traces to the teachings of Freud, Freud might turn over in his grave and find it superficial or silly, since David simply tells anxious patients that they are suppressing or repressing something that’s bothering them, and insists they bring it to conscious awareness right away. David accepts this criticism, but also adds that the Hidden Emotion Technique works and frequently triggers complete recovery with patients who are only partially helped by the skillful use of cognitive techniques and exposure techniques.

However, the “niceness” phenomenon only seems to affect about 75% of anxious patients; sometimes, a phobia is just a phobia, with no hidden feeling or conflict. Those individuals will not be helped by this technique. Fortunately, we have dozens of other powerful techniques that will be curative!

Treatment of Hypochondriasis / Health Anxiety

Treatment of Hypochondriasis / Health Anxiety

Hi Dr. Burns,

I have read feeling good and listened to all your podcasts as of today. I have a history of hypochondria and depression and your book helped me tremendously in overcoming my anxiety. I am beyond happy that I can finally have control over my emotions.

I used to go to psychotherapy sessions with multiple different psychotherapists and more often than not the solutions they offered were along the line of “keep as busy as possible not to give in to the thoughts” or “imagine the obsessive thoughts as a spoiled brat that you should not give into” which all failed dramatically. And believe me when I say they even made it worse than before!

Recently I was listening to some your anxiety podcasts in which you introduced the exposure technique. You described how it worked in the case of Pedro, the young man with OCD who was having intrusive thoughts of Jesus having sex with Mary in all the positions of the Kama Sutra. And the harder he tried to control these forbidden thoughts, the more intense they became!

You also described the Experimental Technique you used in your panic attack patients. I was wondering if these techniques can be helpful in the case of patients dealing with health anxiety.

I read a research paper of a psychiatrist treating her hypochondriac patients with exposure techniques. For example, in my case, if I’m always scared of contracting HIV, I might volunteer to work with HIV positive patients so I could confront my fear. I was wondering if that could help with the urge to get tested very often and if there are any other techniques you specifically find useful in this case.

I used the exposure technique successfully to eliminate my frightening thoughts of slitting my wrists or throat with a razor. These thoughts used to give me a tremendous amount of anxiety and I would always try to eliminate them from my mind as soon as they appeared, almost automatically thinking that’s the way to protect myself. That didn’t work! But now they are completely gone as I spent a full half-day just repeating those images in my mind, over and over again. I tried to imagine all the graphic details until I was completely bored with them! I would like to thank you for reaching out and sharing your knowledge and expertise with people despite the fact that you don’t practice anymore.

And by the way that jumping jacks story with your patient who thought she was about to die during a panic attack has become an inside joke between me and my husband!

Sincerely,

Mona

Hi Mona,

Thank you for your kind comments about the Feeling Good podcasts! I know that my host, Fabrice, will be thrilled to hear that you like them and find them helpful!

There are so many things I appreciate about your wonderful email that I’m not sure where to begin. I do want to emphasize that I cannot treat anyone or give medical advice in this medium, so my answer, as always, will consist of general teaching.

First, I resonated when you described previous therapists who gave you advice, thinking that would help. To my way of thinking, an awful lot of “psychotherapy” consists of schmoozing behind closed doors with the occasional piece of advice thrown in, and in most cases, that just doesn’t get the job done. In fact it can make people feel worse, because it is often sounds patronizing.

Second, I have a current series of several Feeling Good podcast on the treatment of anxiety using four models that are all described in my book, When Panic Attacks. They are the Motivational Model, the Cognitive Model, the Exposure Model, and the Hidden Emotion Model. All four models have tremendous healing power, and I integrate all four into my treatment of each individual with anxiety, because you never know which one, or which combination, will give you the “ah-ha” moment when the anxiety suddenly disappears completely. You can listen to those podcasts right now if you like, either on iTunes or right here on my website, feelinggood.com.

In the treatment of OCD, the Exposure Model usually has two components: Exposure and Response Prevention. So if a person has an irrational fear of HIV, as you described in your email, they could use Cognitive Exposure or Classical Exposure. Cognitive Exposure might involve fantasizing dying of HIV until the fantasy becomes totally boring. Classical Exposure might involve volunteer work with HIV patients, as you mentioned.

In therapy, I work with the patient to figure out what type of Exposure will be the most effective. The Exposure has to be anxiety-provoking, or it won’t be helpful. And, as you say, the goal of exposure is not to control the anxiety—which makes it worse—but simply to flood yourself with the anxiety until it finally loses its power over you.

Response Prevention would mean, in this case, refusing to give in to the urge to get repeated blood tests, if that’s what you are doing to deal with your fear of HIV. But the Response Prevention has to be tailored to your compulsion. Let’s assume that you had OCD with a handwashing compulsion, so you are washing your hands repeatedly all day long to get rid of the imagined “contamination.” Response Prevention would mean refusing to give in to the urge to wash your hands repeatedly. The anxiety will increase for several days, but if you refuse to give in, the compulsion will generally diminish and disappear. This is a bit like drug withdrawal, actually.

But Exposure is just one of four effective treatment models. I treated a medical student with severe OCD who also had the fear of HIV, and Exposure and Response Prevention were only somewhat helpful, and definitely not curative. In his case, the Hidden Emotion Technique ruled the day. If you are interested, you can read about that fantastic technique in my book, When Panic Attacks, and of course, one of the Feeling Good podcasts on anxiety will focus on this technique.

I have treated many patients with health anxiety / hypochondriasis and the Hidden Emotion Technique almost always contributed greatly to their (frequently rapid and complete) recovery. But in therapy, I use more than 75 techniques to help folks—it just isn’t the case that you can have one “formula” that works for everyone, since we are all individuals and our negative thoughts and feelings will be unique—so that requires an individualized approach to treatment, namely TEAM-CBT. (That’s my commercial message!)

All the best,

David