What Is Abreaction?

Upset man in therapy

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What Is Abreaction?

An abreaction is an emotional, unconscious reaction that you have in response to something that brings back a painful situation you experienced. It may be an event that you remember, or it may be something that suddenly pops into your consciousness when having the abreaction. 

As an example, consider someone who has been physically abused who responds to a raised hand by cringing even though the other person's intent was to brush away a stray thread.

Abreaction can also be used to describe the process a therapist uses to desensitize or help you to stop having these automatic reactions. Within the safety of a therapy session, you may be led to experience abreaction so that you can then learn to replace the illogical, gut-instinct reaction with one that is more suited to the situation.

History of Abreaction in Therapy

Abreaction, along with its counterpart catharsis, which refers to emotional release, was first discussed at length by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in their early studies on psychoanalysis. They initially put a significant amount of emphasis on the importance of abreaction and catharsis.

After more study, Freud and Breuer realized that simply expressing and/or reliving painful emotions is not all that is needed to achieve recovery, particularly for trauma survivors.

This emphasis on achieving catharsis through abreaction carried on through World Wars I and II through trauma therapists who used hypnosis and chemically-induced techniques to create abreactions. Some therapists did realize the importance of helping trauma survivors do more than just deal with their emotions, however.

Uses for Abreaction

Abreaction is rarely used in isolation as a therapeutic tool. Simply eliciting a reaction to a stimulus does nothing to address the emotions and behaviors associated with the past trauma. The value of abreaction is that it can lead to realization. However, that does not mean that the feelings surrounding the difficult experience have been resolved.

While abreaction has been largely disregarded for therapeutic use, some therapists may use it in some contexts, usually integrated within a larger treatment plan. When abreaction occurs, people may work with their therapist to deal with the feelings associated with past trauma.

After bringing a past trauma to mind, memories can be carefully explored with the support that the person needs to cope with the trauma. Learning to integrate these experiences and lean on valuable coping skills may minimize the dissociation that people can experience in response to trauma.

For example, some research suggests that a technique known as abreactive ego state therapy may be effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This process involves the use of repeated hypnotically-induced abreactions of the trauma, followed by ego strengthening.

As an integrative approach, abreaction may have some value when incorporated into a treatment plan that utilizes other treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Abreactions may also occur during a treatment known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This approach is sometimes used as a treatment for PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. During this treatment, people recall difficult or traumatic memories while engaging in bilateral eye movements. 

Recap

Abreaction is no longer used on its own as a treatment, but it may come into play in other types of trauma therapy. Understanding the reaction, identifying the thoughts and emotions behind it, and replacing those thoughts and reactions with more effective ones can be helpful.

Impact of Abreaction

Freud's initial belief in promoting abreaction in therapy was that through the release of the painful emotions, the traumatic experience would be less distressing. Today, experts recognize that repeatedly experiencing traumatic memories and emotions does not relieve distress.

Trauma often causes people to dissociate from their emotions, memories, and identity. The amount of dissociation a person experiences can range from mild, similar to daydreaming, to severe, as in the case of people with dissociative identity disorder (DID).

Some schools of thought believe dissociation needs to be dealt with by making it part of your consciousness and identity. While dealing with dissociation is important, mental health professionals understand that dealing with traumatic stress such as that associated with PTSD cannot rely just on treating the traumatic memories with abreaction.

In fact, studies have shown that one of the best kinds of therapies for PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has nothing to do with abreaction.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Trauma

CBT works because it helps PTSD survivors reframe their thinking about their trauma. For instance, a rape survivor may feel illogical and unnecessary guilt for the situation they were in.

With CBT, the person would learn to change their thinking to realize that it doesn't matter what situation they were in, only rapists rape, and they could then learn to let go of the guilt. Changing faulty thinking and replacing it with more rational, factual thinking helps PTSD survivors cope better with the feelings of guilt, anger, distress, and fear they may have.

Tips for Coping With Abreaction

While some abreactions may take place as a planned component of therapy, spontaneous abreactions can occur at random times when you least expect them. Stimuli that mimic past trauma might unexpectedly trigger a reaction as you go about your daily life. Experiencing abreaction can be intense and upsetting, but there are strategies that you can use to cope.

  • Be aware of triggers: Being aware of potential triggers may help you more effectively deal with abreaction when it happens. While trying to avoid triggers is understandable, this type of avoidance coping can make anxiety and reactions worse in the long run. Instead, focus on looking for strategies that will help you manage your responses.
  • Practice calming techniques: Abreaction can put your body in a state of alert, so finding ways to calm and relax your body is essential. Deep breathing is one strategy that can be particularly effective for soothing distress and anxiety.
  • Find support: Having supportive people around you to talk to can be helpful when you are coping with difficult, traumatic, or intense memories. Try talking to a trusted friend about what you are experiencing.
  • Talk to a therapist: If you are experiencing abreaction, consider talking to a mental health professional. They can recommend treatments that may help you process and cope with trauma, such as CBT, EMDR, or other types of therapy.

Recap

If you are experiencing spontaneous abreaction, consider talking to a therapist. They can safely guide your therapy and help you process emotions and memories with appropriate support.

Summary

Abreaction is an unconscious reaction to a stimulus that triggers the memory of a painful experience. While once used as a stand-alone treatment, therapists no longer rely on this strategy alone when treating trauma. Instead, mental health professionals may explore abreaction as a useful way to inform other types of trauma therapy. People experiencing spontaneous, unguided abreactions may find it helpful to utilize coping strategies and seek support from a trauma-informed therapist.

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