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:
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.
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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