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Frozen emotions: the sedation for pain

Although the society insists in formatting the grieving process emphasizing crying and sadness as expected manifestations for this moment, it is no uncommon to hear people reporting they have lost the capacity of feeling, of having some kind of emotion, good or bad, after an important loss


The sedation of any kind of sensations or emotions, sadness or happiness, may seem to be part of the life that is left for some survivors.  That is what we have learned reading some reports that came by confession and after talking to a specialist in the area.

John Bolwlby was a British psychologist and psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the Theory of Attachment. According to Bolby, a baby presents reactions to the loss of hi/her mother. This means that the emotion is a process that children, teenagers, adults, elders , men and women go through every time they lose a beloved one. The difficulty to express  or feel, doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t have emotions. We grieve every time  we break a strong love bond. The way we are going through this grieving process , how we are going to express the pain is connected to many factors and it is a process, it is particular and individual.

This process takes place from the individual’s personality structure, personal history with the deceased one and variables such as age of loss, type of death, environmental conditions and support network that the person has form then on. An example of this is that brothers going through the same loss, a parent, for example, have different reactions and behaviors. It is needed to be careful in order not to expect a single standard of grieving displays.

The report published on this site in Inspiration-Beautiful Stories and Thoughts, on the 26th of August, in which Rosane, a teenager at that time, retells the tragic experience of having lost her father to suicide, can help us think about this complex universe and particularly those who have the task of going through the grieving process of someone they love. As she describes it, “getting sad felt very frightening to me” and then imprisoning emotions was the resource she built in order to prevent a huge suffering and carry on the life she had left.

How can we understand this freezing mechanism of emotions? Why does it happen to some people? What is the psychological cost of this investment which at first glance, seems to solve the conflict?

Going from joy to sadness in a few seconds is a psychological high cost task, from the point of view of emotional dynamics. That’s exactly what happened to Rosane, who enjoyed her first day of  such an expected period of vacation with her friends. What would be a time of pleasure and good memories, turns into a tragedy that carries images of too much suffering and rejection. We must understand that besides our conscious control, there are, in our psychological functioning, other mechanisms that are beyond our rational controls, and that act as a warning to protect the integrity of the “EGO”.

Freud (1894, Vol III),in his book “The defenses of psychoneuroses”, already pointed to the fact that ideas, representations and traumatic emotions can be felt by the subject as incompatible with his psychic life, produce feelings that are so distressing that, within his personality structure, there would be no choice but to forget them, reject or killed them.

Years later, in 1925 Freud writes about the defense mechanisms as mechanisms developed by the psyche in order to protect the integrity of the subject’s ego. This study describes the defense mechanisms as universal, ie; everybody makes use of them, to a lesser or greater degree. The occurrence of anxiety, caused by conflict, would be a prerequisite for the activation of some defense mechanism to protect the ego integrity.

Wisely, our ego develops and selects important psychological defenses to protect us from situations that threaten us strongly, and GRIEVING is one of them. If these defenses weren’t activated, possibly we would get crazy or have outbreaks, which is what happens when they fail.

The experience of living an important loss at any age, is highly disorganizing from the psychological point of view. During the grieving period, the ego has to resort defenses to will help to deal with the situation.

The “freezing of emotions,” mentioned by some people who go through a major loss, is surely a strong defense mechanism that has the task of preventing a person to feel pain and suffering, yet it prevents the person from feeling joy or anguish, or distress, or whatever it is.

It is important to know that it is not a conscious choice, no one says “I will freeze my emotions” and freezes them. So why do they freeze? Because the unconscious understood that this would be the best temporary solution to your type of personality, your age, your time and the situation you lived.

You can then think that the freezing of emotions can be a great solution to the suffering in the grieving process, but it really isn’t. Why? Because what we don’t digest psychologically, remains somewhere in our psyche and reappears, whether in the form of physical pain, illness, depression, psychological symptoms such as panic, compulsion etc ..

Giving attention to your feelings is a condition in order not to get sick. The freezing of emotions may be a necessary feature for a while, but it will not be used forever. So, who is in grieving, must understand that:

  1. All forms of expressing feelings are important so that you can elaborate pain;
  2. The support network for friends and Family is very important allthrough the process, at least, in the first year of loss.
  3. Psychotherapy for grieving support is recommended to everybody who suffered an important loss;
  4. Taking care of physical and mental health is the possibility to go through all this process in a healthy way.

There are no magical formulas for finishing the anguish and the pain of losing someone. Although our rational side understands that being born and death are occasions that determine the life cycle, we insist in forgetting and deleting death from our memory. Colin Parkes in “Love and Loss” reminds us that we can’t love without the running the risk of losing. Or, in other words, the size of love is equivalent to the size of pain.

Source: Ana Lúcia Naletto and Lélia Faleiros Oliveira are psychologists at Centro Maiêutica and develop Works in the Funeral segment; cemeteries, crematories and etc.