Sarah-Nicole Bostan, M.A.

Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Understanding Your Emotions

When is it optimal to change how you are feeling?

Posted Jun 12, 2017

The study of emotions is a long-standing, multidisciplinary endeavor that only recently became organized with the unification of research professionals across several academic disciplines, including psychology, exploring what they call “affective science” (Gross & Barrett, 2013). This broad term attempts to encapsulate moods, emotions, and other motivated states as domains of interest that transcend the traditional borders of specific disciplines. But why all the commotion over emotion? Over a century ago, Wilhelm Wundt described emotion as the “fundamental ingredient of the human mind." Contemporary researchers define emotion as flexible response sequences that are enacted each time an individual evaluates a situation as offering challenges or opportunities (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). In short, emotions occur when situations are evaluated.

Source: Bessi/Pixabay

Several theories on the function emotions serve have been proposed. Many convergent themes of the function of emotion include cognitive aspects like the facilitation of decision-making, evolutionary aspects such as the preparation for rapid motor movements, and general aspects like how the individual matches his or her environmental circumstance at any given moment (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Frijda, 1986; Schwarz & Clore, 1983; Fridlund, 1994). Emotions have also been identified to serve social functions such as informing one of another’s behavioral intention, hint at the “goodness” or “badness” or something, and work to script social behaviors (Keltner & Buswell, 1997; Walden, 1991). 

This evaluation of the situation at hand, leading to experiencing a specific emotion, initiates a sequence of changes in the experiential, behavioral, autonomic, and neuroendocrine systems (Lang, 1995). Depending on the evaluation, these system-level changes may be necessary for survival and adaptation. On the contrary, if a situation is appraised incorrectly, it may lead to a system-level change which is not only unnecessary but actually harmful to the individual. For example, an individual with chronic panic attacks may begin to fear that he or she is going “crazy” and this persistent worry leads to increased anxiety, which in turn may lead to autonomic arousal through accelerated heart rate, and overall elevated cortisol levels which have been linked to long-term negative health outcomes and comorbid stress-based clinical disorders.

Emotion Regulation

A key premise in the study of emotion is that healthy individuals have the power to modulate their own emotional responses following an emotional cue, producing a different or more functional emotional response. In his earlier seminal work, affective scientist James Gross (1998a) defined emotion regulation as “the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.” Similar to how emotions involve multiple processes unfolding at varying points in time (initial emotional cue, following evaluation, subsequent changes in experiential, behavioral, autonomic, neuroendocrine systems, final identification of emotion) emotion regulation can also occur at several points in the emotion-generative process. Attempts to manage or modify this emotion-generative process are called emotion regulation strategies.

Assessing emotions in real-time

It has frequently been stated by mental health professionals and supported in the growing body of emotion regulation literature that there are no inherently “bad” emotions to experience, but there are bad ways to deal with them (Aldao, Sheppes, & Gross, 2015). Better understanding of one’s own experiences is tied to self-awareness of when (antecedent- or response-focused) and what type of emotion regulation strategies are employed. Antecedent-focused (af) regulation strategies occur before the emotion responses have been fully activated and have not yet affected peripheral physiological systems or the accompanying behavioral responses, while response-focused (rf) regulation strategies occur after an event has already taken place and a specific emotion has been experienced and is affecting peripheral physiological systems as well as behavioral responses (Gross, 1998b). Most contemporary research has found that antecedent-focused strategies of emotion regulation (the first four items below) are related to better health and mental wellness outcomes than response-focused emotion regulation strategies.

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5 types of emotion regulation strategies:

The annual work party has been used to illustrate the possible opportunities for emotion regulation.

   1. Situation selection (af- the approach-avoidance tendency)

  • Example: Imagine you choose to attend your employers’ company holiday party.

   2. Situation modification (af- the extent to which a situation is tailored to modify its emotional impact)

  • Example: You know your coworker with whom you recently engaged in a conflict over work values will be at the party so you choose to attend the festivities later because you know she typically arrives early and leaves early.

    3. Attentional deployment (af- refers to specific aspects of the situation which become the focus)

  • Example: Despite arriving one hour late, you realize she is still present and happily chatting with your boss, whom you want to talk to as well. You decide to approach your boss but speak exclusively to him, hoping your colleague will respectfully bow out of the conversation.

     4. Cognitive change (af- describes the process of choosing and constructing one meaning of several possible meanings)

  • Example: Your colleague seems to be equally invested in the work-related conversation with your boss, at which point you remind yourself that she is also his employee, probably wants to make a good impression on him, and is not solely lingering to annoy you.

      5. Response modulation (rf- attempts to reduce emotional responses once they have been elicited)

  • Example: Unexpectedly, your colleague turns to you and expresses confusion over your previous work argument last week, in front of your boss. You feel your jaw clenching and your muscles tensing because your worst fear of bringing up the conflict in public has been triggered. Instead of becoming visibly irate in front of your employer, you simply shrug and say cordially “oh, I barely remember what that was about."

Two of the most commonly used emotion regulation strategies occur at stages four and five, cognitive change and response modulation. Specifically, cognitive reappraisal is a type of cognitive change in which one interprets a potentially emotion-eliciting circumstance in a way which changes its emotional impact and has consistently been shown to be an efficient and effective way to reduce negative affect in a variety of healthy as well as clinical populations, across ages and genders. Emotional suppression is a type of response modulation in which the expression of emotion and associated behaviors are purposefully inhibited despite already-aroused physiology. Interestingly, both experimental and naturalistic observation studies have shown that individuals reporting greater positive experiences, better executive functioning, more pro-social behaviors, and higher well-being use cognitive reappraisal over emotional suppression as an emotion regulation strategy. In contrast, studies have indicated that individuals more frequently using emotional suppression as an emotion regulation strategy have higher heart rate, higher salivary free cortisol, and markedly decreased concentrations of plasma oxytocin which is associated with trust, attachment security, positive social interactions, and reduced anxiety and aggression.

Because emotions are internal processes, they can be difficult for people to measure and track although mental health professionals may be of assistance in this process, as well as consistent use of trackers in smartphone applications specifically developed for health and wellness. By understanding emotions, the functions they serve, how to assess them, and how to change them if desired, individuals may be better equipped to act proactively for their own health and well-being rather than waiting until a physiological or mental disorder occurs. 


Aldao, A., Sheppes, G., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion Regulation Flexibility. Cognitive Therapy and Research. Vol 38. Pp. 263-278. 

Fridlund, A. (1994). Human facial expression. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Frijda, N. H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Gross, J. J. (1998a). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 74, Pp. 224-237.

Gross, J. J. (1998b). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, Vol 2, Pp. 271-299.  

Gross, J. J. & Barrett, L. F. (2013). The emerging field of affective science. Journal of Emotion. Vol 13. Pp. 997-998. 

Keltuer, D., & Buswell, B. N. (1997). Embarrassment: Its distinct form and appeasement functions. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 122, Pp. 250-270

Lang, P. J. (1995). The emotion probe: Studies of motivation and attention. American Psychologist, Vol 50, Pp. 372-385.

Oatley, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1987). Towards a cognitive theory of emotions. Cognition and Emotion, Vol 1, Pp. 29-50.

Schwarz, N., & Clore, G. L. (1983). Mood, misattribution, and judgments of well-being: Informative and directive functions of affective states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 45, Pp. 513-523.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol 11. Pp. 375-424

Walden, T. A. (1991). Infant social referencing. In J. Garber & K. A. Dodge (Eds.), The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation Pp. 69-88. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.