Sweet Emotion

The science of emotion regulation

Being Emotionally Flexible

A look at the science behind emotion flexibility

What does it mean to be flexible?

Believe it or not, this seemingly straightforward question is actually quite difficult to answer. Some people are flexible when it comes to changing dinner plans. Others have great physical flexibility that allows them to perform incredible athletic feats (see my friend below). And other folks can promptly switch between using different languages. And so on.

One particular kind of flexibility that is of great interest to affective scientists is emotion regulation flexibility. In a nutshell, this flexibility captures people's ability to use different emotion regulation strategies as the environment changes. This is important because the adaptiveness of regulation strategies changes as a function of contextual demands. For example, cognitive reappraisal might be useful in some situations (e.g., "my date is late because s/he probably got stuck at work and not because s/he doesn't like me") but not in others (e.g., "it's OK for my coworker to dump all his work on me because he has been at the company for a longer time than I have"). Similarly, a mostly maladaptive strategy, such as avoidance, might be helpful sometimes (e.g., declining a lunch invitation from an obnoxious coworker), but not at other times (e.g., procrastinating when we are in charge of finishing a time-sensitive project at work).

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Importantly, there is growing evidence suggesting that the flexibility with which we implement emotion regulation strategies might be key to our mental health (review by Drs. Todd Kashdan & Jonathan Rottenberg). For example, Dr. George Bonanno of Columbia University conducted a number of laboratory studies showing that people who can follow instructions to alternate between enhancing and suppressing their facial expressions while watching emotion-evocative pictures have better mental health and social adjustment and those who have a more difficult time switching between strategies. In addition, in a study I published a few years ago, we found that the variability with which people used acceptance and reappraisal across a number of situations was a better predictor of mental health that the simple average extent to which participants implemented these strategies.

So, as you go through your day, do you notice that you use different regulation strategies in different situations? Examples include: accepting, reappraising, distracting, criticizing yourself, worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, getting stuck in obsessive thoughts, engaging in emotional eating, using substances, and so on...Do you find it easy or difficult to switch among strategies? Does it get easier/more difficult in certain environments (say, work versus home)? Leave your thoughts!


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Amelia Aldao, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University and the director of the Psychopathology and Affective Sciences Lab.

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