- Difficulty processing and managing emotions can affect your mental well-being and quality of life.
- Emotion-focused therapy can address mental health concerns by teaching emotion regulation skills.
- EFT can teach awareness, reflection, validation, and self-soothing, plus other helpful techniques.
Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is based around the widely-accepted idea that emotions make up a key component of your identity.
As a type of humanistic therapy, EFT aims to help people free themselves from assumptions and attitudes that may hold them back from living their most fulfilling lives.
Instead of focusing on specific symptoms, humanistic therapy emphasizes self-understanding and treating the whole person as a unique individual.
EFT, in particular, can help you learn to understand, accept, and express emotions in ways that can change your decisions and behavior.
Canadian psychologist Leslie Greenberg introduced this modality around 1985, in response to what he considered an overemphasis on thoughts in psychotherapy. Greenberg later published the framework in the 1993 book, “Facilitating Emotional Change: The Moment-by-Moment Process.”
Here’s what to know about the potential benefits of EFT and how it works.
What does EFT treat?
Yet EFT may help treat a number of mental health conditions, including:
Timonere notes that EFT can help with exploring negative emotions that contribute to depression, like helplessness and shame. Additionally, Luo says EFT can also alleviate symptoms of depression by reducing excessive self-criticism.
A small 2017 study found that after patients with social anxiety disorder received up to 28 sessions of EFT, their symptoms — including self-criticism — significantly improved.
3. Eating disorders
According to Johnson, eating disorders may develop as a way to numb or cover up overwhelming emotions, like fear, sadness, stress, or anger — and EFT involves addressing those emotions head-on, which can then decrease disordered eating habits.
4. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Researchers believe EFT may prove effective for treating PTSD because it can help you sort out feelings surrounding your trauma and increase self-empathy.
EFT can also empower you to express emotions more effectively, which could help alleviate any PTSD symptoms that stem from suppressing those emotions, Johnson says.
A 2017 study found when veterans completed EFT with their partners, the veterans demonstrated significant improvements in PTSD symptoms, as well as in overall life and relationship satisfaction. The veterans who participated reported feeling more “open with,” “close to,” and “trusting of” their partners after treatment.
5. Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Research on the effectiveness of EFT for personality disorders remains limited.
That said, it may help improve symptoms of BPD, a personality disorder characterized by emotional dysregulation, Timonere says, since EFT can help you develop the ability to manage and control your emotional responses.
Also, experts have linked BPD to decreased levels of self-awareness and increased levels of emotional arousal — and EFT helps address both of these.
Limitations of EFT
EFT aims to help you become more responsive to your internal experience. So, it may not be the best option for treating conditions that involve responses out of proportion to your internal experience, such as panic disorder and impulse control disorder.
Also, EFT may not effectively treat mental health conditions believed to stem from chemical imbalances in the brain, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. That said, it could still help address any emotional symptoms you experience.
How does EFT work?
Greenberg, the creator of EFT, specified six principles of the approach:
1. Emotional awareness: The first step involves knowing what you’re feeling. Naming what you feel can help you reconnect to your needs.
2. Emotional expression: EFT seeks to help you overcome emotional avoidance, often by dismantling unhelpful beliefs, like “Anger is dangerous,” that prevent you from healthy emotional expression.
3. Reflection: This component involves reflecting on the “why” behind your emotions. A better understanding of where they come from and what triggers them can help you work through them.
4. Regulation: This key element of EFT involves increasing your ability to self-soothe when powerful emotions come up, rather than letting them take over. Your therapist might teach you distraction, breathing, and positive self-talk techniques to use in emotionally distressing situations.
5. Corrective emotional experiences: This involves dealing with unhelpful emotions in new ways. For example, a therapist can teach you how to replace shame or self-disgust with a more healing emotion, like acceptance.
6. Transformation: You work to achieve this by tapping into a different emotion to transform one that’s not serving you. Say you experience fear after a traumatic event. You might instead lean into your underlying anger, a more active emotion you can channel into defining personal boundaries or identifying red flags. This may feel more empowering than feeling trapped by a passive emotion, like fear.
According to Berman, EFT treatment can range anywhere from 8 to 20 weekly sessions, based on what you want to treat and the severity of your symptoms.
What’s a session like?
In an EFT session, your therapist will work to help you feel safe enough to express any and all of your emotions as they arise.
They’ll often do this by validating your emotional experiences — for example, by saying, “That makes sense you would feel angry about that,” or “It’s normal to feel sad when that happens” — so you feel more comfortable being vulnerable.
Your therapist will then help you process the emotions you experience through various techniques:
- The “empty chair technique”: Communicating your feelings to a specific person who’s not present — like a friend, partner, or family member — and then responding to yourself as that person.
- Re-enacting a traumatic event to uncover the underlying root emotions.
- Having a dialogue directly with different emotional parts of yourself to gain a deeper understanding of them and boost compassion toward them.
For example, say your feelings of depression stem from your belief that no one in your life cares about you. Chanel Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Altus Home Counseling, says you may uncover through EFT that your interpersonal issues stem from a defensive communication style, which you developed because your mother never validated you.
You might then, in a session of EFT:
- Use the empty chair technique to tell your mother how her behavior made you feel
- Explain your emotional needs
- Switch places to take the role of your mother and provide yourself with the validation you need
“Being allowed to feel and express your anger decreases your need to prove yourself worthy in your adult relationships by becoming defensive,” Johnson says.
How to tell if it’s working
Timonere says you can tell EFT is working if you can better tolerate and navigate the emotions you previously avoided.
“The main purpose of EFT is to help people see their emotions as valuable sources of information instead of painful or difficult states to deal with,” Berman says.
In other words, you’ll likely know it’s working well for you if you find yourself beginning to handle new and uncomfortable situations more easily than in the past, Berman says.
How it compares to other approaches
Other popular therapy models, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) also help with emotional regulation. However, Johnson says EFT tends to focus more on exploring your emotions in the present than the other two modalities.
CBT may have more benefit when you experience distorted thinking that affects your mood and behavior. DBT, on the other hand, may be a better fit if you experience frequent impulsivity or intense shifts in mood.
|EFT||Your emotions drive your behavior.||You work to understand and express feelings before trying to regulate them.|
|CBT||Your thoughts drive your behavior, which then affects the way you feel.||You work to change problematic or harmful thought patterns.|
|DBT||Striking a balance between acceptance and change can help you manage strong emotions.||You practice accepting and regulating difficult or painful emotions.|
How to try it
- GoodTherapy offers a specific filter for EFT.
- On PsychologyToday, try filtering results for “humanistic therapy,” “Gestalt therapy,” or “experiential therapy,” all of which use many of the same techniques as EFT.
Timonere says insurance will typically cover EFT as long as your plan includes mental health services.
EFT focuses on exploring your emotions and how you deal with them in everyday life. It’s often used to treat depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma.
This approach can teach you new ways to use unpleasant or unwanted emotions to get information about your needs and cope with those emotions instead of ignoring or suppressing them.
By helping you to identify and manage your emotions more effectively, this approach can benefit your mental health, as well as your relationships and life overall.