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Stress

2 Ways to Regulate Your Emotions When Stress Gets to You

Which strategies are the most effective at helping you manage your emotions?

When you’re faced with challenging situations, what coping strategies work best for you? The COVID-19 pandemic is placing the entire world into a prolonged period of stress whose end remains uncertain as of April 2020.

On a daily basis, you must deal not only with the threats to your own health but those of your family, in addition to the economic and social strains that now permeate your life. What can you learn from the vast literature in psychology on stress and coping to help get you through the coming weeks and months?

The general thrust of psychology’s approach to stress and coping can be summarized in the two words “it depends.” There is no such thing, according to cognitive views of stress and coping, as an inherently stressful situation. An event or experience will be regarded as stressful if you perceive your own resources to be insufficient to meet the demands being placed upon you. However, the same event will be regarded as a challenge if you perceive that you have the ability to overcome it. At the moment, it may seem almost impossible, if not foolish, to see the stress you’re going through as a challenge. The question is how can you lower your perception of threat so that you are able to mobilize the resources that you have? How can you delve into your best coping methods to get through this?

Oddly enough, there actually is no generally effective way to cope. Just as your perception of stress depends on the situation, so does the best method you can use to cope. In some cases, you can tackle the stress by changing the situation, but in others, when there’s no escape, you'll need to find a way to change your perception of it. The issue then becomes one of emotion regulation. According to research by the National Center for PTSD’s (Boston Veteran’s Administration) Daniel Lee and colleagues (2020), emotion regulation (ER) “is an umbrella label for a heterogeneous group of strategies to attend to, evaluate, and enhance or diminish emotional responding” (p. 423). Healthy forms of ER are linked to a wide range of positive outcomes, from academic performance to overall quality of life. If you could find the right ER strategy when you’re in an unchangeable situation, you can feel mentally prepared enough to get through it.

Noting that there are limitations in a widely-used existing measure of ER known as the Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (CERQ), the VA Boston authors decided to run it through a series of new tests on their own two clinical samples. Consisting of 244 individuals from the community (59% female) as well as 236 male veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the samples averaged 42 and 56 years of age, respectively. Many of the participants also had co-existing mood, anxiety, and or substance use disorders. The research team conducted clinical interviews and cognitive assessments on all participants as well as administering self-report questionnaires. In addition to a somewhat shortened version of the CERQ (Garnefski & Kraaij, 2006), these self-report measures included standardized instruments to assess symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as a self-administered word reading test.

After subjecting the CERQ to a statistical analysis of the way its items grouped together, Lee and his colleagues found that their initial concerns about the measure were validated. Initially developed as a nine-scale test of emotion regulation, the CERQ items now seemed to fit better into a simpler six-pronged structure. Read each of these factors and see which emotional regulation strategies best describes you.

  • Acceptance: You feel that you have to accept what has happened and that it cannot be changed.
  • Self-blame: You believe the cause lies within yourself and that you are the one responsible for the situation.
  • Perseveration: You are preoccupied with how horrible the situation is and often think about how bad it makes you feel.
  • Positive refocusing: You believe that things could be worse and think about pleasant or nicer experiences rather than about the situation itself.
  • Reappraisal: You believe you can learn from the situation and can become a stronger person.
  • Other blame: You feel that others are to blame rather than yourself.

Although found to have validity, the Lee et al. version of the CERQ was administered only to a clinical sample, meaning that its relationships to the other measures may not readily generalized outside of that population. However, returning back to the Garnefski and Kraaij findings, which was conducted on a community (non-clinical sample), it is possible to gain some insights on how your coping strategies can become successfully mobilized in situations that have no clear solution.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety in the 2006 study were most strongly related to self-blame and perseveration, suggesting that if you think the worst, regard yourself as the cause, and can’t get the situation out of your mind, you will feel more overwhelmed by the situation. Conversely, reappraisal is perhaps the most adaptive, allowing you to find some glimmer of hope out of even a dire situation. Neither other blame nor positive refocusing seemed to be particularly beneficial in terms of anxiety and depression.

To sum up, these findings from the CERQ reinforce the stress and coping literature’s basic assumptions that your thoughts about a situation can affect your ability to manage your emotions. It’s natural to become preoccupied with your thoughts about any kind of bad experience, whether a discrete event or a prolonged period of duress. Begin by assessing realistically how you are coping, and then commit to shifting toward these two more positive strategies.

References

Garnefski, N., & Kraaij, V. (2006). Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire: Development of a short 18-item version (CERQ-Short). Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 1045-1053. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.04.010 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/15602074.pdf

Lee, D. J., Thompson-Hollands, J., Strage, M. F., Marx, B. P., Unger, W., Beck, J. G., & Sloan, D. M. (2020). Latent factor structure and construct validity of the Cognitive Emotion Regulation Questionnaire–Short form among two PTSD samples. Assessment, 27(3), doi:10.1177/1073191118791301423–431

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