It's important for the coping process that you find a balance between emotional and logical responses to traumatic events.
After a traumatic event, people often unknowingly turn to defense mechanisms as a response to stress and uncomfortable emotions, rather than genuinely processing what happened. One such common response is a behavior known as intellectualizing.
Intellectualization involves using facts, logic and abstract reasoning to try and turn stressors into neutral events with no particular emotional valence. We use our examination and reasoning skills as a way to protect ourselves, leaving all feeling out of it.
“A common example is when someone who has been assaulted recounts the experience to the police, or even a friend or family member, and they basically just tell exactly what happened almost as if it happened to someone else or was a different person’s story,” Dr. Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine, told HuffPost. “We basically reason our way out of having to feel painful emotions. Sometimes it can also be helpful and help us get through the acute hard situation.”
Most of the time, intellectualizing is not something we do on purpose, Gold said. And while it might at first help to ease pain and be comforting for someone who’s gone through something horrible, it can also be damaging ― preventing someone from understanding the severity of an event, coping with it properly or healing from it.
“The problem arises when we do it too often, or in situations that really need to be managed with,” Gold said.
If you’re unsure whether you’re intellectualizing your own distressing experiences, here’s what experts think could be signs of the coping method:
You talk about what happened in a removed, unemotional way
Someone who is intellectualizing may talk about their experiences in general or broad terms, rather than referring to themselves personally in a story. Speaking nonchalantly about an event may help them feel like its importance is minimal. Doing this can also be a sign of dissociating, which is when you actually detach from your feelings about an event, as opposed to just talking in a detached way.
“This isn’t always bad ― if you’re running for your life, ‘feeling’ the broken leg in your body wouldn’t be helpful in getting away,” Cody Isabel, a neuroscientist and CEO of the Mind, Brain, Body Lab, told HuffPost. “By feeling detached from the event, the emotional impact may be minimized, at least in the short term.”
However, this can can cause a disconnect between you and your own experiences. Though it may be comforting, talking about what happened without acknowledging any attendant feelings will prevent you from understanding or coping with your trauma.
“In therapy, sometimes these patients will quote data or stats to you,” like that “assault survivors have X% of experiencing these symptoms or thoughts,” Gold said. “But if you ask them how they feel about it, they can’t tell you.”
You do a lot of research
As a way to understand and process a traumatic event, you might feel the need to research all the facts about your situation and analyze it thoroughly.
“They might turn to books, other people’s stories, to learn everything they can about assault, or theories about responses to assault, so they can be an expert on the topic, and never focus on the actual feelings behind their experience,” Gold said as an example.
Typical emotional reactions to trauma can include fear, anxiety, panic and shock. Intellectualizing a traumatic event by trying to figure out what happened and how and why it did ― or generally asking questions ― can also be a response.
Feelings are something that tend to be out of our control, or that we might not truly understand. In some situations, they might not even be seen as culturally acceptable. So you might turn to facts to gain back that control, Gold said.
Facts and knowledge “feel much more in our control, like ‘If I can just read everything there is to know, I will logically understand what happened,’” Gold said. “Unfortunately, most things aren’t perfectly logical, and all of us have feelings whether we like it or not.”
You sometimes seem to lack empathy for yourself and others
Empathy plays an important role in personal experiences by providing an emotional connection with ourselves and others. It allows us to perceive emotions and understand which ones resonate with us. It also allows us to take in other perspectives, and distinguish between our own emotions and other people’s.
Someone who is intellectualizing may appear as though they have no emotions, said Dr. Richard Tedeschi, professor emeritus in the psychological science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and executive director of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth. “In that way, it is likely also a constraint to empathy.”
Being able to empathize with yourself and others is a way to process and cope with stressors. It helps us create meaningful connections, and allows us to relate to other people and get support.
What to do if you suspect you’re intellectualizing a traumatic experience
“Don’t beat yourself up for intellectualizing, as it is not all bad, but start to recognize when you are doing it and identify and name that you are,” Gold said. “That makes the unconscious protection conscious, and is a good first start.”
After coming to understand that you might be intellectualizing, it’s important to start asking yourself how you feel, and if you perceive any sensations in your body.
“In trauma, we often disconnect the brain and body, and being able to notice not just thoughts, or feelings, but bodily sensations, helps you start putting that back together,” Gold said. “Try answering things like ‘How do you know you are angry?’ and ‘How do you know you are sad?’”
If you’re finding it impossible to notice thoughts, emotions and body sensations, talking to a therapist can help you get started on identifying your feelings.
“It allows you a safe and protected space to talk about something you might not really want to talk about ― hence the intellectualizing,” Gold said. “Trauma therapy is uncomfortable, and often harder before it gets better, but it is worth it.”