11 Insights Into Emotion Regulation
You have more control over your emotions than you think.
After three decades of studying emotion regulation, Stanford psychologist James Gross has gotten much better at managing his emotions. Yet, he still feels anxious when running late for his appointments. That’s good news, at least for safeguarding the mystery and complexity of what it’s like to be human.
Gross’ research has enriched our understanding of the behind-the-scenes workings of our emotional worlds. Firstly, as he summarizes some of his biggest insights, even though emotions are often helpful (like when nurturing our connection with others or saving us from harm) they are not always helpful. Second, there are things we can do about the unhelpful emotions. Third, the different approaches we can use to shape our emotions will have different consequences for our well-being. Fourth, try as we may, we won’t likely ever enjoy a sovereign hand over our emotions. And perhaps it’s for the better.
Here is Dr. Gross in his own words.
You have more say on your emotions than you think. Emotions are not like lightning bolts that hit us out of the blue. Instead, emotions are processes that occur over time and unfold through different steps. This makes it possible for us to exert influence on them. To begin with, there are situations that we attend to. Then, we evaluate these situations in a certain way. These combined processes create a coordinated response of experience, behavior, and physiology that we call emotion. If you interfere with that unfolding process, then you can change what gets built.
Is it better to regulate your emotions or to let them run their course? You decide.
It’s a matter of deep discernment for each of us to know which and when emotions are helpful or harmful. There is no general rule that applies to everyone in every situation because, by definition, the function of emotions is context and person-specific. We have to think carefully about both the long-term and short-term consequences of our emotions for ourselves. When emotions start to interfere with your ability to get things done, whether at work or with your relationships, then you want to start thinking about sculpting your emotions in a way that allows you to re-engage with the world.
Sometimes, acceptance is the best course.
Acceptance is a complex emotion regulation strategy that involves other small strategies. It has an important impact. Sometimes when we start to feel upset, we might feel upset about being upset, which can magnify the emotion. Acceptance involves looking at your thoughts and feelings and letting them play themselves out, without judgment. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll no longer feel upset. But it may help you not be as upset about being upset by shutting down that feedback cycle.
Emotions occur in bursts that last for seconds.
Emotions are continuously regenerated in bursts. Each time you represent a particular emotion in your mind, you are reactivating it. What’s important to know is that these bursts last for only seconds to tens of seconds. When you are in a grip of an emotion, it might feel like a continuous mass of sadness or anger. But, in fact, you are generating bursts of emotions, one after another. One way to think about these bursts is in the context of a very young child. A crying child can quickly become fine when you distract them with a toy, before going back to crying if something else upsets them.
Emotions unfold over stages.
According to the process model (Gross, 2015), emotions are generated over four stages:
Situation: person encounters a situation (real or imagined) that has emotional relevance or importance.
Attention: person attends to the situation.
Appraisal: person evaluates and interprets the situation in relation to his/her goals.
Response: person generates an experiential, physiological, or behavioral response based on their appraisal.
A person finds himself sitting in front of a panel of interviewers answering questions about himself (situation) when he notices that the interviewers don’t seem very enthusiastic about his answers (attention). The person interprets the panel’s apparent dissatisfaction as a failure (appraisal) and starts sweating and feeling anxious (response).
You can regulate your emotions using different strategies.
The process model outlines five families of emotion regulation strategies.
In the example of the job interview, the person can use various strategies to influence his emotions, at various times of the emotion generation process (McRae & Gross, 2020):
Use avoidance (situation selection) by not engaging with emotionally relevant situations (e.g. decline giving face-to-face interviews).
Use a direct request (situation modification) by influencing the situation directly (e.g. ask the panel to conduct the interview online).
Use distraction (attentional deployment) by directing the attention towards less emotional aspects of the situation (e.g. look at prepared notes rather than the interviewers).
Use rumination (attentional deployment) by thinking over and over about the moments when the interviewers appeared bored or displeased.
Use cognitive reappraisal (cognitive change) by re-interpreting the facial expressions of the interviewers (e.g. think that their lack of immediate positive feedback doesn’t mean anything).
Use acceptance (cognitive change) by noticing and not judging the feelings of arising anxiety.
Use expressive suppression (response modulation) by making sure that his facial expression doesn’t betray his internal anxiety.
Use physiological intervention (response modulation) by trying to change the physiological reaction caused by anxiety (e.g., take a deep breath).
There is no one best way to regulate your emotions.
Different strategies have different consequences. While some strategies are generally more helpful than others, there is no one best emotion regulation strategy. Sometimes adjusting your situation is the most powerful strategy. For example, if you can creatively transform your environment so that the things that were upsetting you aren’t there anymore, you could solve many problems. But that’s not always a good strategy, because sometimes people “fix” their environments in unhealthy ways. Even a powerful strategy like reappraisal, which is often very helpful in finding peace during upsetting times, can backfire. For example, if you are motivated by anger about injustice, you might feel better after reappraising. But you might, in turn, have decreased your motivation to fix the problems in the world.
Suppression is (mostly) unhelpful.
Suppression doesn’t really make you feel better. It makes your body work harder because you are constantly inhibiting impulses as they are being generated. It also stresses the people around you. We have found that constantly clutching emotions increases the blood pressure of the person who is suppressing and those around him/her. People feel more distant from those who are always suppressing their emotions. However, just like the helpful strategies are not always helpful, so too, the mostly unhelpful strategies – like suppression – are not always unhelpful. For example, when you are interacting with your boss, showing all your emotions may not be beneficial.
Personality includes individual differences in the strategies that people tend to use when regulating their emotions. Our research has found that some people frequently use reappraisal, while others frequently use suppression. Because how much people use reappraisal or suppression is not correlated, there are all kinds of combinations of strategies possible. There are also interesting but more subtle effects on gender, culture, age when it comes to emotion regulation.
Do you want to become better at regulating your emotions? Practice, practice, practice.
The process of paying attention to your emotions, thinking about them, noticing what happens when you use different regulation strategies builds your psychological muscle. Practice encourages the mindset that emotions can be helpful or harmful and when they are harmful, we can do things about them. As we practice these strategies, we become more skilled at shaping our own emotions, as well as helping the people around us to regulate their emotions.
A final piece of advice: pay attention.
Usually, when you are trying to improve anything in your life, the first step is to notice what’s happening right now. My advice is to pay attention: Be on the lookout for times when emotions are working well for you, and when they aren’t. Your emotions shape what it’s like for you to be alive and what it’s like for others to be around you. A better understanding of your emotions and those of others gives you more freedom to shape your emotional experiences.