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Emotions are a vital part of our everyday lives. Whether you’re having a good laugh over a text message or feeling frustrated in rush hour traffic, you know that the highs and lows you experience can significantly affect your well-being.

Your ability to regulate those emotions, in turn, affects how you’re perceived by the people around you. If you’re laughing at that text during a serious meeting, you’re likely to get resentful looks from others in the room. On the other hand, if you react with rage at a driver who cuts you off in traffic, you can engender unwanted attention, and perhaps even risk your life.

The study of emotions is not an exact science. Psychologists still debate the body-mind connection in emotional reactivity; don’t have a complete taxonomy of emotions; and are even uncertain about whether emotions are the cause or result of the way we construe the world. However, there are advances being made in understanding the concept of emotion regulation, the process of influencing the way emotions are felt and expressed.

Stanford University psychologist James Gross (2001) proposed a 4-stage model to capture the sequence of events that occurs when our emotions are stimulated. In what he calls the “modal model,” a situation grabs our attention, which in turns leads us to appraise or think about the meaning of the situation. Our emotional responses result from the way we appraise our experiences. 

Some emotional responses require no particular regulation. If the emotion is appropriate to the situation and helps you feel better, there’s no need to worry about changing the way you handle things. Laughing when others are laughing is one example of an appropriate reaction that helps you feel better. Expressing road rage may also make you feel better, but it’s not appropriate or particularly adaptive. You could express your frustration in other ways that allow you to release those angry feelings, or instead try to find a way to calm yourself down.

Calming yourself down when you’re frustrated, of course, may be more easily said than done. If you tend to fly off the handle when aggravated, and express your outrage to everyone within earshot (or on the other end of an email), your emotions could be costing you important relationships, your job, and even your health.

An inability to regulate emotions is, according to Gross and his collaborator Hooria Jazaieri (2014), at the root of psychological disorders such as depression and borderline personality disorder. Although more research is needed to understand the specific role of emotional regulation in psychopathology, this seems like a promising area of investigation. For example, people with social anxiety disorder can benefit from interventions that help them change the way they appraise social situations, as shown by research on cognitive behavioral therapy. Many others functioning at a less than optimal level of psychological health, Gross and Jazaieri maintain, could similarly benefit from education about how better to manage their emotions in daily life.

Fortunately, you can handle most of the work involved in regulating your emotions well before the provoking situation even occurs. By preparing yourself ahead of time, you’ll find that the problematic emotion goes away before it interferes with your life:

  1. Select the situation. Avoid circumstances that trigger unwanted emotions. If you know that you're most likely to get angry when you’re in a hurry (and you become angry when others force you to wait), then don’t leave things for the last minute. Get out of the house or office 10 minutes before you need to, and you won’t be bothered so much by pedestrians, cars, or slow elevators. Similarly, if there’s an acquaintance you find completely annoying, then figure out a way to keep from bumping into that person.
  2. Modify the situation. Perhaps the emotion you’re trying to reduce is disappointment. You’re always hoping, for example, to serve the “perfect” meal for friends and family, but invariably something goes wrong because you’ve aimed too high. Modify the situation by finding recipes that are within your range of ability so that you can pull off the meal. You may not be able to construct the ideal soufflé, but you manage a pretty good frittata.
  3. Shift your attentional focus. Let’s say that you constantly feel inferior to the people around you who always look great. You’re at the gym, and can’t help but notice the regulars on the weight machines who manage to lift three times as much as you can. Drawn to them like a magnet, you can’t help but watch with wonder and envy at what they’re able to accomplish. Shifting your focus away from them and onto your fellow gym rats who pack less punch will help you feel more confident about your own abilities. Even better, focus on what you’re doing, and in the process, you’ll eventually gain some of the strength you desire.
  4. Change your thoughts. At the core of our deepest emotions are the beliefs that drive them. You feel sad when you believe to have lost something, anger when you decide that an important goal is thwarted, and happy anticipation when you believe something good is coming your way. By changing your thoughts you may not be able to change the situation but you can at least change the way you believe the situation is affecting you. In cognitive reappraisal, you replace the thoughts that lead to unhappiness with thoughts that lead instead to joy or at least contentment. People with social anxiety disorder may believe that they’ll make fools of themselves in front of others for their social gaffes.  They can be helped to relax by interventions that help them recognize that people don’t judge them as harshly as they believe.
  5. Change your response. If all else fails, and you can’t avoid, modify, shift your focus, or change your thoughts, and that emotion comes pouring out, the final step in emotion regulation is to get control of your response. Your heart may be beating out a steady drumroll of unpleasant sensations when you’re made to be anxious or angry. Take deep breaths and perhaps close your eyes in order to calm yourself down. Similarly, if you can’t stop laughing when everyone else seems serious or sad, gather your inner resources and force yourself at least to change your facial expression if not your mood.

This 5-step approach is one that you can readily adapt to the most characteristic situations that cause you trouble. Knowing your emotional triggers can help you avoid the problems in the first place. Being able to alter your thoughts and reactions will build your confidence in your own ability to cope. With practice, you’ll be able to turn negatives into positives, and, each time, gain emotional fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Gross, J. J. (2001). Emotion regulation in adulthood: Timing is everything. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 214-219. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00152

Gross, J. J., & Jazaieri, H. (2014). Emotion, emotion regulation, and psychopathology: An affective science perspective. Clinical Psychological Science.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

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