Life is full of stressful situations, some of which are lower on the totem pole of emotional intensity and some much higher. On the lower end might be a morning drive to work in unexpected traffic or a subtle reminder from your boss about the minor deadline you missed. Seeing the destroyed car (and driver) that caused the traffic jam or your boss questioning your ability to do your job, would likely elicit more extreme emotional reactions.
For several decades, psychologist have been interested in how people successfully control their emotions in stressful situations. The idea is that, if we can understand how healthy people manage their emotions, we may be able to improve the lives of those with depression or anxiety (both of which are characterized by breakdowns in emotional equilibrium). Now, new research published last week in the journal Psychological Science shows that successfully regulating our emotions is not a "one size fits all" endeavor. Rather, it involves bringing the right emotional regulation strategy to bear on the situation. Simply put, different emotional contexts require different regulation processes.
People can regulation their emotions in different ways. On the one hand, incoming emotional information can be regulated by brain processes that prevent the information from capturing too much of our attention to begin with. A distraction strategy, for instance, involves disengaging from negative emotion by producing distracting thoughts that are neutral in nature. These thoughts are designed to prevent our emotional reactions from gaining too much force in our minds. As an example, after your boss questions your ability to do your job, instead of thinking about the fact that you might soon be out of work, you think about what you are going to do this weekend with your friends instead.
Of course, incoming emotional information often does creep into our conscious thoughts, gaining momentum in its severity. Another strategy that can be employed to deal with our emotions once they have captured our attention is reappraisal, which involves thinking about the emotional information in a way that reduces its negative meaning - instead of being upset by getting to work late, you reason that since you are always on time, it's not that big of a deal.
As it happens, healthy individuals manage their emotions by flexibly using reappraisal (which allows for emotional processing) when the intensity of negative emotion is low and there is an opportunity to reframe the situation and distraction (which tends to block emotional processing) when negative emotions run high and there is not enough time to productively deal with the stress.
To demonstrate this flexibility, researchers at Stanford University showed healthy students emotional pictures that varied in intensity (a sad face versus a bloody face). People were allowed to freely chose between using either reappraisal or distraction as an emotion regulation strategy after seeing the pictures. In another experiment, instead of the pictures, folks saw a warning for an electric shock they were about to receive. The warning was for a shock that would be either low or high in its intensity. Again, people were allowed to choose their emotion regulation strategy before their received a little electric stimulation or a lot. In both the picture and shock situations, people overwhelmingly chose distraction to deal with the intense negative emotion-inducing situations and reappraisal for the less-intense ones, suggesting that successful regulation of our emotions is all about picking the right strategy for the right occasion.
Of course, one important unanswered question is how people vary in their ability to apply the appropriate emotional regulation strategy and whether this variability predicts long-term emotional health. However, given that depression is thought to involve an inflexible ruminative engagement with high-intensity negative emotional information and anxiety is thought to involve an inflexible avoidant disengagement (distraction) from low-intensity negative information, the current findings suggest that flexibility may be one key to emotional well-being.
The take home? When it comes to managing our emotions, one size does not fit all. And, fitting the appropriate emotion regulation strategy with the intensity of the stressful situation likely impacts whether we can function at our best when the stress is on.
For more on emotion and the brain, check out my book Choke!
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Sheppes, G. et al. (2011). Emotion-regulation choice. Psychological Science.