Understanding emotional processing styles

By Roger Baker, lead author of the Emotional Processing Style (EPS)

We have described the Emotional Processing Scale as being able to measure emotional processing styles and deficits. The expression ‘emotional processing style’ suggests that each person has a particular way of coping with and expressing emotional events, and like styles and fashions in clothing, differences and variety is normal and healthy. Different individuals, different families and different cultures have their own particular styles. For instance, in England we might say “I really enjoyed myself tonight” when we didn’t, in order not to offend the host. In other European countries where it’s more important to be honest in your expression, this may be perceived as insincere and untruthful. Both types of expression are normal and healthy within their own culture but not across different cultures. In our Emotional Processing Scale Norms Booklet version 1 (Baker, Thomas, Thomas, Santonastaso & Corrigan, 2015) we provide different tables of norms for Polish, Indian, Portuguese, Egyptian, Japanese, US, Canadian, Australian and British people. There are significant differences in patterns of scoring in the 5 subscales of the EPS between these various nations, which reflects differences in emotional processing style between cultures.

The implication here is that there is no correct and incorrect, healthy and unhealthy, satisfying and unsatisfying emotional processing style, but this stretches the analogy too far.  Whilst there is quite a wide band of normal and healthy processing, which for instance the different nations fall within, there are problems at the extremes. Every psychological disorder group that we, or our colleagues, have studied show highly significant elevations in emotional processing scores compared with healthy normal samples of individuals drawn from their own culture.  This includes addictions, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, psychogenic conditions, youth offenders and so on.  Whilst the differences between cultures may be small but statistically significant, the difference between healthy and psychological disorder groups is large and very statistically significant.  Such differences can be found for each of the 5 subscales of the Emotional Processing Scale – suppression, signs of unprocessed emotion, controllability of emotion, avoidance and emotional experience. There is some suggestion that there may be different types of problematic emotional processing styles amongst different psychological disorders; for instance, high (poor) suppression and avoidance scores in the anxiety disorders, and higher emotional experience scores (lack of understanding of emotions) in depression, but much more research using the EPS is necessary before anything conclusive can be said on this.

Another research question is whether a problematic emotional processing style predisposes certain individuals to develop psychological disorders when faced with unbearable stress, or whether developing a disorder itself changes the style of emotional processing. (This is addressed in Baker R (2011) Understanding Panic Attacks and Overcoming Fear, Lion Hudson, Oxford, and Baker R (2010) Understanding Trauma; how to overcome Post Traumatic Stress, Lion Hudson, Oxford)). Whatever the answer to this, there is abundant evidence using the EPS and other measures, such as the Toronto Alexithymia Scale, that psychological disorders and distress is associated with poor emotional processing style.

The profile sheet in the Emotional Processing Scale booklet provides a nice visual presentation of the percentile scores of a healthy UK population. From this it is possible to plot an individual’s personal emotional processing score and see how different aspects of emotional processing compare with healthy and unhealthy ranges of scores.

This provides a sort of empirical touchstone for assessing healthy and unhealthy variations in emotional processing style.

This article was originally posted on http://emotionalprocessingscale.org/

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