We all know the feeling: a big upswell of negative emotion hits and, all of a sudden, we’re thinking, behaving, and speaking in ways our calmer selves wouldn’t be proud of. When this happens, we can do a number of things to quell the storm of emotion. For example, we can tell ourselves it’s not worth being upset about, take some deep breaths, or call a sympathetic friend.
These attempts to reel our emotions back into our control fall under the umbrella of emotion regulation: the multitude of ways that we influence which emotions we have, when they occur, and how we experience and express them. While the ability to manage our emotions is important for many aspects of our day-to-day interactions, emotion regulation is also highly associated with almost every indicator of mental health.
Emotion regulation researchers emphasize that while that big upswell of emotion may be inevitable, how quickly and how well you reign your emotions in is likely within your control. And yet, if you asked a scientist studying emotion regulation how, exactly, you should go about this emotion regulation process, they would likely give you an unsatisfying answer: It depends.
A wide range of factors create this contingency. For example, there are significant differences in the extent to which individuals benefit from specific methods of managing emotions depending on their developmental stage, gender, and even personality traits.
However, accumulating evidence suggests that the connection between how we manage our emotions and our mental health may also depend on another variable: our income.
Individuals who rely heavily on ignoring, disengaging from, or avoiding emotional experiences tend to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms. This finding reflects the classic adage that pushing your emotions down where no one will ever find them is, as we all expected, quite bad for your mental health.
And yet, a recent study conducted by me and Gary W. Evans, which examined this phenomenon among youth, found that the association between disengaging from emotions and mental health difficulties depended heavily on the participant’s family income. For youth whose family income was below the poverty line, the association between disengagement and mental health was strong. Surprisingly, however, as family income levels went up, the association between disengagement and mental health symptoms nearly disappeared.
These findings suggest that for youth from higher-income families, there is much less of a connection between disengaging from your emotions and depression and anxiety symptoms.
While this study did not examine specific mechanisms that may explain this association, there are three pathways that may be at work here:
1. Knowing when to disengage
Not every emotional experience deserves our full attention and deep cognitive processing. When something is frustrating you, but the problem is short-term and beyond your control, trying to disengage from your frustration is probably helpful. For example, when someone is playing music loudly on your subway ride home, it’s probably best to swallow your frustrations and just try to ignore the problem. And yet, when something is bothering us that is modifiable, and that will likely not resolve itself anytime soon, trying to ignore your frustration is likely futile at best, and harmful at worst.
So, knowing when to employ disengagement is probably a key step in preventing it from becoming detrimental to your mental health. However, individuals who are living in low-income situations face significantly more stressors in their daily lives and often have considerably less control over the hassles they encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Over time, determining which stressors are immediately modifiable, and which are not, may become increasingly difficult. As a result, the volume and intensity of stressors experienced by individuals belonging to low-income households and communities may encourage an over-reliance on disengagement use that leads to more depression and anxiety symptoms over time.
2. Access to mental health care
The link between disengagement and mental health problems may also be at least partially explained by the lack of mental health resources available to low-income individuals. In the United States, the cost of accessing mental health care is an unmanageable burden for many families, and the mental health needs of many low-income individuals are severely underserved.
If higher-income individuals rely heavily on disengagement, they are likely much more able to afford the cost of seeing a psychologist: Many psychologists in the United States charge at least $150 just for an initial session.
In contrast, lower-income individuals often cannot manage this added expense, particularly when average insurance deductibles are over $1,400 (and many psychologists don’t even take insurance).
The explanation that higher-income people can simply afford to treat the mental health issues that they encounter should seem obvious: This perspective is consistent with a large body of research showing that higher income is a protective factor against a long list of health problems.
3. Stigma inside and outside of the therapist’s office
The barriers to seeking out mental health treatment aren’t just financial. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that mental health stigma, which is one of the strongest deterrents to seeking and gaining benefit from mental health services, is higher within low-income communities.
To make matters worse, evidence suggests that lower-income individuals also face higher levels of stigma from health care providers.
Even low-income youth who have access to mental health resources or treatment may not feel encouraged to make use of these services, and may have less of a chance of developing a positive rapport with a mental health professional. This is a significant issue, given that rapport is one of the strongest indicators of your likelihood to benefit from therapy.
Engaging with our emotions is important for successfully navigating our day-to-day emotional upswells as well as our overall mental health. However, knowing when and how to engage with these emotions is essential. Taking the time to learn how to navigate this balance, particularly if you belong to a low-income household, is likely a key part of building strong mental health.