Distinguishing Between Emotions May Help to Manage Them

"High differentiators" might cope with negative emotions more effectively.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

Yuricazac/Shutterstock
Source: Yuricazac/Shutterstock

By Elizabeth Zakaim

After a stressful event, it’s common to experience a flood of emotions–imagine feeling sadness, anger, and anxiety all at once. One way of dealing with those emotions successfully may be to mentally distinguish them and actively reckon with each one, according to a recent paper published in the journal Psychological Science.

Identifying each emotion as it’s experienced is called emotion differentiation. Parsing the nuances of one’s emotional state may not immediately come to mind as a coping technique, but it could be an underappreciated way to manage distress. “Differentiation may stop negative emotions from turning into something worse,” says lead author Elise Kalokerinos, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle.
 
In two studies, Kalokerinos and her colleagues collected data from hundreds of college students in the midst of stressful situations, such as adjusting to the first week of school or waiting for an exam grade. At various points throughout the day, over multiple days, students recorded how they felt and rated the extent to which they used each of a variety of common emotion regulation strategies. For example, the students rated the degree to which they had distracted themselves from their feelings or tried to reframe the way they viewed the situation.

The researchers also gauged emotion differentiation based on the distinctiveness of an individual's emotion ratings over time: Someone who reported highly matched levels of different negative emotions, such as “sad,” “anxious,” and “disappointed,” was taken to be a “low differentiator.” 

For high differentiators, compared to low differentiators, the use of certain emotion-regulation strategies (such as distraction) was less closely associated with negative emotions—providing “evidence that differentiation is associated with strategy effectiveness,” the researchers write. One emotion-regulation approach, however—acceptance—was associated with less negative emotion for low differentiators, but not for high differentiators.

The overall amount of variance in negative emotions that differentiation helped account for was small. But the results suggest that “if you have this big mess of emotions where you don’t specifically label them, you’ll have a harder time managing your emotions,” Kalokerinos says. 

The data in these studies couldn’t show that emotion differentiation necessarily leads to fewer negative emotions. The two may just be correlated: Perhaps, for other reasons, those who are skilled at distinguishing their emotions also tend to be skilled at managing them.

“The results give us really clear insight into how being able to identify what you’re feeling and being able to change what you’re feeling are associated with each other,” says Erik Nook, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Harvard University studying emotion regulation. “A primary task in therapy is helping people figure out what they’re feeling.” 

Kalokerinos believes that the results at least support the possibility that emotion differentiation is a helpful strategy. She suggests that people can learn to apply it in their daily lives. The process of distinguishing emotions can be similar to practicing mindfulness, she says: Take time to become aware of what you’re feeling in the present moment and try to mentally separate each emotion—then determine how to respond to each one.

Elizabeth Zakaim is an Editorial Intern at Psychology Today.