Emotions play a huge role in our lives, and processing them correctly is very important. When something goes wrong, we can experience difficulties in the long run. But how does emotional processing work? Below you can read more about the process and what can go wrong.

Emotional Processing Theory

Almost 50 years ago Edna Foa and Michael Kozak developed a theory to explain emotional processing: the Emotional Processing Theory. Your brain saves everything you experience as a ‘program’. When you encounter a similar situation later on, the corresponding program will be activated. This program makes sure your brain knows what to do. In order for this program to work adequately, there is some essential information needed. This is an example of the information that is programmed during an encounter with a wild bear:

  • Signal: Seeing a wild bear
  • Physical reaction: An increased heart rate
  • Meaning: A bear is dangerous!
  • Response: A fast heart rate means I’m afraid

Because this information is readily available in your brain, you can react fast and flee or hide. In this situation your emotions are helpful, and this is seen as a helpful reaction. 

Problematic reactions

When such an automatic reaction occurs when it’s not needed, they become problematic. A reaction becomes problematic in the following situations:

  • The information is not an accurate representation of reality.
  • Physical symptoms and fear reactions are caused by something harmless.
  • The fear reactions interfere with daily functioning.
  • Harmless signals and responses are seen as dangerous.

These kind of situations are common for people with anxiety or traumatic symptoms. For example, a phobia of spiders, where something relatively harmless can cause an extreme reaction of fear. Or, if shortness of breath becomes a signal to panic. But also thoughts about a traumatic event can lead to an unnecessary fearful reaction, because it feels like the event is happening again.

When you want to change a problematic reaction, there are two requirements: the emotion needs to be activated, so that the old and incorrect information can to be replaced with new realistic information. That means you need to face your fears in order to be able to decrease them. And that’s actually counterintuitive!


Try describing what kind of typical situations you react to with an emotion that’s (too) extreme. Describe all the information to get a clear overview of your program, so you can examine whether it contains inaccurate information. Maybe you see the signal of making a mistake, as a confirmation that you’re a failure. Or, maybe you see a negative feeling as a signal that something dangerous is about to happen. If you gain more insight in your program, you will get a better understanding of what you can change!

To do this, you can use the Thought Records in the NiceDay app. They give you a clear insight in your thoughts and the (possible) consequences. They can also help you bend your negative thoughts to more positive. You can use the NiceDay app without having treatment, download it here.

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Wouter Schippers

Hey, I am Wouter. I'm a NiceDay coach and psychologist. I like to play football and to make electronic music.

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