WORLD VIEW

The ERIC World View is an essential mindset to adopt when delivering ERIC. A collaborative and compassionate approach is encouraged, with the welfare and needs of the young person the primary focus. Embody the World View every time you are with a young person.

Maintaining hope for change is essential when delivering ERIC. The ERIC World View assumes that all young people (and adults) have the capacity to learn emotion regulation skills. We all learn the complex skills that make up emotion regulation through practice, repetition and active cultivation. Emotion regulation is not an innate ability or personality construct. In actual fact, we are born without the skills to regulate how we feel and we rely on our caregivers to help us. As we develop, we continue to learn emotion regulation until the end of our lives. We learn the core skills of self-soothing and distress tolerance during early childhood from our caregivers. If we are exposed to environmental stressors, trauma or disruption in attachment to our caregivers, it is likely that our emotion regulation learning will be interrupted. If during adolescence we have not yet been taught helpful strategies to regulate our emotions, or worked out through trial and error which strategies are most helpful in different contexts, it is unlikely we will have a broad repertoire of skills. We may tend to rely on one skill instead of several and may apply the same skills in most contexts. Fortunately, cultivating emotion regulation is a life-long endeavour. When we are young, the best relationship in which to learn emotion regulation skills is with a caring or trusted adult who can apply a collaborative and compassionate approach to learning. A relationship characterised by warmth, acceptance, compassion and non-judgement is encouraged when delivering ERIC.

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Attachment theory explains how the relationship between a child and their caregiver emerges and influences social, emotional and cognitive development. Attachment can be understood in an evolutionary context, where the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. Basically, attachment to a caregiver enhances the infant’s chance of survival, and it has been proposed by developmental psychologists that all infants have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened.

ERIC aims to cultivate flexibility in emotion regulation. The primary aim of good emotion regulation is developing a broad repertoire of helpful strategies and learning which strategies to apply in different contexts, so we can remain focussed on our personal values or goals. Teaching a young person that they can choose how to respond to emotions, rather than remaining stuck in unhelpful cycles is powerful. From an evidence-based perspective, learning when to accept and tolerate overwhelming emotions or when to apply good problem solving skills is adaptive for mental health. Difficulties identifying emotions, accepting and tolerating negative emotions, practicing self-compassion and choosing adaptive strategies to modify emotions are associated with mental health issues. Developing a reliable range of emotion regulation skills that help modifying the intensity or duration of an emotion is crucial. Learning which strategies are helpful for certain situations is also incredibly important. Finally, knowing when to practice acceptance and tolerance of emotions and when to actively problem solve to fix a situation, are all components of emotion regulation.

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In the scientific literature adaptive emotion regulation has been conceptualised as involving seven key emotion regulation elements: (1) Awareness of the emotion; (2) Identification and correct labelling of the experience; (3) Understanding the factors causing and maintaining the affective state, (4) Modification of the emotion if possible; (5) Tolerance and acceptance if the emotion cannot be changed; (6) Approach and face up to the difficult situation; and (7) Self-soothe and practice self-compassion (Berking & Whitley, 2014). ERIC builds skills in each of these elements, and encourages the development of adaptive strategies that can be applied flexibly depending on the situation.

ERIC is a targeted emotion regulation skills package. ERIC is different to counselling, although it has been evaluated and delivered alongside many different styles of counselling. In all forms of skill development, including learning a musical instrument or playing a sport, if we are not aware of what skills we are being taught, then it is difficult to practice and learn. For this reason, ERIC is overt about WHICH emotion regulation skills are being cultivated, HOW to develop the skills and WHY they are important. For example, the ERIC Outcomes list 24 emotion regulation skills to target. The ERIC Target highlights which ERIC Domains should be your focus. Being explicit with a young person about what skill you are cultivating helps reinforce the idea that emotion regulation is like learning all complex new skills. A lot of practice and coaching helps enormously. It may help to name and describe the ERIC skills that you are working on or to describe why strategies like suppression and rumination are unhelpful. Taking the mystery out of how the mind learns all complex skills by using analogies like learning a musical instrument or how to play a sport, can validate how difficult it is for all of us to learn complex new skills. This ensures the experience of learning emotion regulation is empowering.

An acceptance based stance is fundamental when delivering ERIC. Acceptance based approaches are underpinned by an assumption that effective management of emotions occurs through building tolerance of uncomfortable internal experiences, as opposed to working hard to avoid, change, or control them. Put simply, it involves being open to the actual feelings we’re having. ERIC builds skills to help young people to accept difficult feelings and thoughts. Acceptance is also an important quality of the therapeutic relationship when delivering ERIC. This relationship is best described as being characterised by non-judgement. Accepting each young person as they are and valuing their inherent worth and strengths fosters a relationship free from judgement. Not only does this provide a space for a young person to explore their existing emotion regulation strategies, it will encourage the young person to be open to learn new skills. Keep in mind that most young person are doing the best that they can with the emotion regulation habits they have at hand. AND they would also benefit from skill development. Knowing when to validate their efforts and when to push for change is, at times, a delicate balancing act. Finally, ERIC also promotes self-acceptance. So every interaction is seen as an opportunity to model and practice self-acceptance.

In ERIC, a consistent theme is ‘accepting’ uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and behaviours rather than resisting and avoiding them. The language used to talk about emotions is important, keeping in mind that it is the response to emotions that can be unhelpful, not the emotion itself. Using terminology such as ‘unhelpful’ when discussing responses to emotions, instead of ‘harmful or bad’ helps remove the negative judgement from the experience of emotions.

It is important to note that acceptance of difficult circumstances is not the same as giving up or resigning to non-action. In the therapeutic relationship acceptance of a young person is not the same as condoning harmful behavioural choices. Rather, acceptance of how things are ‘right now’ is an important first step in changing. In emotion regulation, taking a pause to accept difficult feelings before planning how to respond, is a vital starting point. Acceptance and change are two interdependent concepts. Ensuring you create balance between both is important to ultimately making lasting change to emotion regulation habits.

ERIC is based on learning theory, like all behavioural interventions. Learning theory assumes that any behaviour that is reinforced will be maintained.  At times, avoidance might seem like an attractive option for managing overwhelming emotions. However, avoidance is the most common reinforcing behaviour of difficult thoughts and emotions. What you resist, persists is a common way of viewing the relationship between avoidance and difficult emotions. In the short term, avoidance reduces the discomfort of facing a difficult emotion. However, in the long term, avoidance perpetuates our inability to helpfully manage difficult emotions and ultimately take us away from the things we value the most.

ERIC is underpinned by cognitive theory, like all cognitive interventions. Cognitive theory assumes that how we think has a direct influence on how we feel and behave. In essence, our interpretation of a situation will dictate our emotional response, not the situation itself. Hence, it follows that we can change how we feel by changing our relationship to our thoughts and recognising there are multiple ways to interpret situations.

Adaptive emotion regulation involves modifying the experience of emotions rather than eliminating certain emotions. It is not the emotion itself which is problematic, but rather how the emotion is experienced and how the individual reacts. Reducing our physiological arousal when overwhelming emotions are present reduces the sense of urgency accompanying strong emotions. In turn, this allows us to take a pause and chose a helpful response. The skills of modifying the intensity, tolerating and accepting difficult emotions are essential for adaptive mental health.

From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions have an important function, communicating essential information and helping us to survive. Evolutionary psychology proposes that there are three systems in all brains that are necessary for survival: threat; drive; and rest and digest (Gilbert, 2017). All brains are designed to defend and protect us from harm. The main threat emotions are: anger (fight), anxiety (flight), and disgust (banish). All brains are also designed with a drive system that motivates us to acquire what we need for survival and reproduction. The evolutionary consequences of our drive system is a brain that has a ‘pleasure centre’ that produces a range of strong emotions linked to rewards. Some of our reward emotions are: motivation, excitement and pleasure. These kinds of emotions tend to be short lived. We can become addicted to chasing these short lived highs. The rest and digest system is designed to assist our body to calm down. Emotions associated with calming down include: soothing, satisfaction, contentment and feeling safe. Our threat, drive and rest and digest systems are associated with different brain regions and chemistry. From an evolutionary perspective, we can theorise that the overactive threat and drive emotions in young people who have experienced trauma or neglect, are commonly accompanied by underactive soothing emotions. This imbalance may have relevance in how we conceptualise emotion regulation skill development in vulnerable young people. Building self-soothing skills are an obvious focus for promoting healthy emotion regulation in vulnerable young people.

In order to develop our understanding of mental health issues in young people, neuroscientists have studied the nature of the brain, how it is designed and what it was designed to do. These studies have been crucial in understanding the structures in the brain that provide the basis for motivation, emotion, cognition and behaviour (Gilbert, 2017). From a trauma informed perspective, we know that threat focussed, defensive or aggressive responses to difficult situations may be natural reactions for young people who have lived in particularly hostile and neglectful environments as children.  It also follows that you’re more likely to be trusting, open, able to develop supporting relationships and resilient if you grow up in a safe and caring environment. In neglectful and abusive environments, these responses are adaptive because they help you to be more mistrusting, socially cautious, and threat sensitive (Gilbert, 2017). ERIC teaches young people how to regulate their emotions and manage impulsivity, two areas often developmentally impacted due to trauma or neglect. In ERIC, it is assumed that young people who have experienced trauma, neglect, disadvantage and vulnerability are likely to present with difficulties regulating emotion. Therefore, skill development in emotion regulation is particularly important for vulnerable young people.

Citation: Paul Gilbert. “A Brief Outline of the Evolutionary Approach for Compassion Focused Therapy”. EC Psychology and Psychiatry 3.6 (2017): 218-227.

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