Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotion Regulation

The Most Effective Emotion Regulation Strategy

Therapists rank the effectiveness of emotion regulation strategies.

Key points

  • People use a variety of emotion regulation strategies (e.g., distraction, concealing emotions) to cope with challenging situations.
  • Therapists of different orientations consider problem-solving to be one of the most effective emotion regulation strategies.
  • Problem-solving involves defining the problem and one’s goal, identifying obstacles, and implementing and then evaluating potential solutions.
Source: AbsolutVision/Pixabay

An article published in the June 2021 issue of Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, by Southward and colleagues, explores the most effective emotion regulation strategies, as chosen by 582 therapists in the U.S.

Best Emotion Regulation Strategies: Investigation

Participants were 582 practicing trainees and therapists, with an average age of 42 years; 76 percent were female; 86 percent were Caucasian; they had a median of 4,000 hours of experience.

The sample’s primary theoretical orientations consisted of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and non-CBT.

  • CBT: Cognitive (18 percent), behavioral (25 percent), and third wave/acceptance-based therapy (12.0 percent).
  • Non-CBT: Existential (3 percent), interpersonal (7 percent), psychodynamic (15 percent), Rogerian (4 percent), and other (16.0 percent).

The participating clinicians were presented with 11 vignettes describing common stressful situations their patients may encounter. These included stressors related to interpersonal issues (e.g., fighting with one’s romantic partner; not receiving an invitation to a party), school (e.g., failing an important test), finances (e.g., trying to get a loan), and physical illness (e.g., becoming ill with mononucleosis).

The clinicians were tasked with identifying, for patients facing the above stressful situations, the best emotion regulation strategy from the following list:

Acceptance (e.g., of emotions or situations), distraction, hiding one’s feelings, expressing one’s emotions, gathering additional information, trying to improve the relationship (e.g., spending quality time together), leaving the unpleasant situation, problem-solving, seeking support and advice, and reappraisal (e.g., viewing oneself or the situation in a less stress-inducing way).

Subsequently, the therapists were required to rate the effectiveness of each strategy in helping patients feel better (from zero, meaning not effective at all, to 100, meaning extremely effective).

Best Emotion Regulation Strategies: Findings

The results showed none of the strategies was rated as most effective in all situations.

However, some strategies were more likely than others to be rated as effective across different situations. Specifically, therapists, regardless of orientation, agreed that problem-solving was generally the best emotion regulation strategy, whereas concealing emotions was the least effective emotion regulation strategy.

See Table 1, for the full ranking of emotion regulation techniques, from most effective to least.

Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Southward et al., 2021)
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Southward et al., 2021)

The findings regarding problem-solving (i.e., it being a highly effective emotion regulation technique) agree with previous research. For instance, a 2010 meta-analysis of emotion regulation strategies found the regular use of problem-solving had the largest negative association (r = − 0.31) with mental illness; in contrast, emotional suppression, which overlaps with the concept of concealing one’s emotions, was positively associated with mental illness (r = 0.34).

Emotion Regulation and Problem-Solving

Let us end with a brief review of problem-solving, which, as noted above, is considered a highly effective emotion regulation strategy for managing stressful situations.

Problem-solving is an active and goal-oriented approach to dealing with stress. It involves trying to modify the situation or its consequences (as opposed to modifying the unpleasant emotions experienced in the situation).

Problem-solving involves the following:

  • Defining the problem and the goal, identifying the obstacles to the goal, brainstorming potential solutions to overcome the obstacles, evaluating the potential solutions, choosing the least costly and most beneficial solution, implementing the solution, and evaluating the results.
  • Defining the problem is an important initial step because real-life problems are often complicated—involving thoughts, emotions, values, attitudes, and actions of one or more people.

Let us consider an example.

Suppose a friend says, “I feel sad because I rarely get to spend quality time with my teenager.” You can probably identify the problem and the person’s goal from their statement alone. To solve the problem, the individual would need to consider various obstacles to the goal of spending quality time with their teen—obstacles like fatigue, conflicting schedules, or communication issues. Subsequently, they will need to brainstorm solutions (e.g., read a book on communicating with teens, go on a camping trip with their teenager), choose and implement one of these solutions, and evaluate whether the solution worked as expected.

In general, is important to be as specific as possible when defining the problem and goal, be creative when brainstorming potential solutions, and be realistic regarding one’s expectations (but remain optimistic if a solution does not work).

To become a great problem-solver and to cope successfully with different situations, use problem-solving techniques regularly and develop a problem-solving mindset. So try to become more curious. Make friends with uncertainty (that is where possibilities and opportunities exist). And do not give up.

More from Arash Emamzadeh
More from Psychology Today