Why You Should Believe You Can Control Your Emotions

To lessen emotional distress, you first have to believe that you can.

Posted Sep 05, 2018

Kat Jayne
Source: Kat Jayne

Do you try to manage your feelings? When you experience distressing or upsetting emotions such as anger, rejection, or disappointment, you basically have two options: You can wallow in the emotions and ruminate about them or you can try to regulate them and lessen their impact in the moment.

The term emotional regulation refers to strategies we employ, either consciously or unconsciously, to manage distressing emotions. One of the most common is distraction. We have an argument with our spouse, over text, in the middle of working on an urgent project at work so we push our irritation aside and refocus on the project in order to meet our deadline. By refocusing on our work and away from our distress, our irritation lessens (at least for the time we’re focused on our project) and we have successfully regulated our emotions in that moment.

Another common strategy is suppression. We simply shove down the feelings and try not to let them get to us. For example, we finally sit down to watch episodes of our favorite show and a friend calls us for the fifth time that week to talk about a recent breakup. Since our friend is already really upset, we can’t tell them we're annoyed so we suppress our frustration and try to be there for them.

Both distraction and suppression tend to occur naturally in that we don’t make a conscious decision to regulate our emotions; we just engage in those strategies automatically. As such, distraction and suppression are the most common emotional regulation strategies we tend to use. However, they are also the least effective because the underlying distressing emotion is still there. Once we leave work and get home, our irritation with our spouse is likely to resurface and we're also likely to still feel frustrated after the call with our friend because we now don’t have enough time to watch our show.

The most effective emotional regulation strategy is called reappraisal or reframing. What makes it effective is that it involves trying to change the underlying distressing emotion itself, say by changing our perspective of the situation or trying to finding a silver lining. For example, we might realize that the argument with our spouse is an opportunity to address a larger issue that has been on our mind for a while--how we communicate during work hours. By reframing the fight as an opportunity (to address a larger issue) we lessen the emotional impact of the specific argument.

In the case of the heartbroken friend, we might remind ourselves that we had been looking for something to look forward to over the weekend, and now that we have these episodes left, we can look forward to watching our favorite show. Finding the silver lining in the frustrating call will reduce the frustration we feel in the moments after our call.

In dozens of studies, reappraisal has been found to be the most effective strategy for regulating emotions because it brings about greater and longer lasting reductions in emotional distress. Since to employ it, we have to actively figure out how to think about our situation differently, we first need to believe that doing so will actually reduce our distress. In other words, we first have to believe our emotions are malleable and that our efforts to regulate them will make us feel better. The problem is many people don’t believe our emotions are malleable (even though that is a fact, as we all use emotional regulation techniques in our daily lives, even if just distraction and suppression).

Indeed, studies have found that people who view their emotions as more malleable tend to use more active emotional regulation strategies such as reappraisal, have greater motivation to use these strategies, expend more effort in doing so, and as a result, experience significantly lesser emotional distress in their lives.

A recent study examined how teenagers’ beliefs about the malleability of emotions impacted their use of effective emotional regulation strategies and found that teens who believe emotions aren’t malleable were significantly less like to use reappraisal in their daily lives and over time, they experienced more emotional distress and had significantly greater symptoms of depression.

Therefore, the first step in reducing the emotional distress we feel in daily life is to realize that our emotions are almost always malleable to some degree. Once we accept that truth and realize that reappraisal is the most effective way to regulate emotions, we can start step two: Practicing reappraisal in our daily lives. When you find yourself in emotional distress, look for ways to reframe the situation or find a silver lining by asking yourself the following questions:

1. What is the possible upside in this situation? 

For example, I’m annoyed my partner just yelled at me for being inconsiderate but if I'm honest with myself, I have been preoccupied with work lately. So maybe I can think of their admonition as a good reminder to focus on the things that really matter to me like my family life and not ruminate about work once I’m home.

2. How can I use the situation to further another goal I might have? 

I’m frustrated that I can’t go running because it’s raining but I can use the time to look online for that treadmill I’ve been thinking of getting.

3. In what ways is the situation not as distressing as it first seemed? 

I’m disappointed that my potential date cancelled but I wasn’t that into them anyway so now I can focus on finding someone I’m more excited to meet.

4. What would the situation look like if I took a different perspective? 

I’m worried that my teenager smoked and drank at a party but if I looked at it differently, I realize she was quick to admit what she did and that she tends to take responsibility for her mistakes far more often than I did at her age.

5. What potential opportunities are there in the situation? 

I’m sad to see how upset my 10-year-old is about not making the team but this provides a great opportunity for me to talk with them about how to bounce back from failure and give them a really important life lesson.

References

Ford, B. Q., Lwi, S.J., Gentzle,r A. L., Hankin, B., & Mauss, I. B., (2018). The cost of believing emotions are uncontrollable: Youths' beliefs about emotion predict emotion regulation and depressive symptoms. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General. PMID 29620380 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000396