Emotions in the Wake of Disaster

How you respond to emotions may have implications for your psychological health

Posted Mar 07, 2014

Michiko is at home, contentedly sipping coffee and flipping through the pages of a gossip magazine while her toddler plays at her feet and her 7-month-old naps in her crib. She lives in an area with frequent earthquakes, so at first she hardly notices as her cup begins to clatter in its saucer. But quickly the shaking becomes more and more severe, and the apartment building begins to rock alarmingly from side to side. The quake is not letting up.

She grabs her son by the arm and rushes to her infant daughter’s room to swoop her up. Michiko manages to get to the stairwell, one struggling child under each arm. Dust begins to fall from the ceiling, and she realizes that there is no way to get all three of them down the long, steep staircase safely. She rushes to return her infant to her crib, kisses her hot face, and begins the challenge of wrestling her toddler down the perilous stairs.

Once outside, she looks desperately for someone she can entrust her toddler to so that she can return for her daughter. Huge buildings tilt and crack as a sea of panicked humanity rushes by her.

This is a fictional recombination of several real accounts told to us by our research participants, living and working in Tokyo, Japan during the March 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear crisis.

The Regulation of Emotion

I study emotion regulation, or the strategies people use to change or modify their emotional states in order to feel better or meet some other sort of goal, such as behaving appropriately in a social situation. Most of the time, the situations that require us to regulate our emotions are fleeting and minor (you must dampen your irritation with a frustrating client in order to maintain a good working relationship). Decades of research have taught us a lot about which methods of emotion regulation are most successful.

This research seems to indicate that one of the most effective emotion regulation techniques is that of cognitive reappraisal – the ability to rethink the nature or implications of a situation in order to alter its impact (the client is just trying to please his own boss - I can recall being in similar situations and should be more patient).

So, cognitive reappraisal is effective, and both how frequently you use cognitive reappraisal in your daily life and how successfully you are able to use it to reduce negative emotions have been linked to all sorts of good outcomes like lower depression and heightened well-being.

Regulating Emotions in a Crisis

But back to our participants in Japan – if you are in mortal fear for your life, for your children’s lives, if you literally cannot trust the ground under your feet to hold you – can you really rethink the horror of the situation? Even if you can, would it help? Or might these relationships between cognitive reappraisal and good outcomes be altered?

We asked our participants to report how often they used cognitive reappraisal in their daily life, and we also measured how good they were at using reappraisal to reduce their negative emotions using emotionally evocative pictures related to the disasters. For a subset of the pictures, we asked participants view the picture as they normally would and then report how they were feeling. For a different subset, we asked them to use reappraisal to change their emotional response. 

We also collected information about how our participants were faring in their daily lives – specifically, how depressed they felt and how many symptoms of posttraumatic stress they were experiencing (e.g., nightmares, strong startle reactions, thoughts about the trauma that were difficult to control).

Emotion Regulation Skill Associated With Lower Depressive and Posttraumatic Symptoms

Our results revealed that how frequently participants reported using reappraisal was not related to how they were faring after the crisis. However, on the picture task, both how strongly they reacted to all of the negative pictures, as well as how successfully they reduced their emotional experience on the reappraisal trials statistically predicted their levels of both depressive and posttraumatic symptoms (stronger reactions related to worse functioning, greater success related to better functioning).

Thus, the extent to which one tends to rethink an emotional experience was not related to better or worse psychological functioning, but one’s ability in the moment to follow through with a goal (the instruction to decrease emotional response) was associated with better moods and fewer symptoms of posttraumatic stress.

What This Tells Us

These intriguing results support multiple theories indicating that better emotion regulation skill may be associated with a healthier reaction to potentially traumatic situations. While many believe these theories to hold merit, there have been surprisingly few experiments examining reappraisal skill and functioning in participants who have all been through the same stress, especially soon after the event.

What This Doesn't Tell Us

Our ability to make conclusions from one single study is always limited in psychology, and the fact that we were only able to collect data on one aspect of people’s emotions (their personal experience as they are able to report it) particularly limits our ability to make definitive conclusions. These findings need to be replicated, especially in a design that also incorporates other aspects of emotional response, such as physiological response and/or emotional expressions.

Moreover, some work I've conducted with colleagues Phil Opitz and Heather Urry (currently under review) indicates that even when you train people to use reappraisal in studies such as this, people have a tendency to also employ lots of different regulation strategies (e.g., thinking distracting thoughts, looking away). It may be that our task was detecting a more general emotion regulation skill than specifically reappraisal ability.

In the meantime, these data are deeply reassuring to me – that emotion regulation is indeed an important skill related to better functioning, and that studying ways to help people regulate their emotions may make a real difference in people’s lives.

Please, may I have some more?

For those who like to see the maths, or who would simply like to read more, you can find the full-text PDF of this article here.

Interested in the mechanisms of posttraumatic stress? Check out my predoctoral mentor’s work on the neuroimaging of PTSD here.

Want to learn more about emotion regulation and the implications it might have for our psychological healthHere is a great start.