Finding the Right Balance: How to Regulate Emotions
December 1, 2015
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Child balancing on rocks by D. Sharon PruittPhoto Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

Think about the last time you were feeling an emotion you wanted to change in some way. Maybe your coworker said something hurtful and you didn’t want to let on that their comment bothered you. Or maybe you were upset at your friend or partner and wanted to express your disappointment in a more constructive way. Now that you’ve imagined this situation, what did you do? Did you let the emotion run its course? Did you try to suppress what you were feeling? Or did you try to reinterpret the event so that you felt something else instead?

Emotion regulation is the process of changing the emotion we experience—whether we are trying to amp up the experiences of a positive emotion or lower the amount of a negative emotion. According to Stanford psychologist James Gross, there are a variety of ways that we can change our emotional experience, some more effective than others. Read on to learn about how people regulate their emotions and which ways are the most beneficial:

How do people regulate their emotions? There are five main ways that we can regulate our emotions, and these techniques can be defined by where they occur in the process of experiencing an emotion. Some occur before we even enter an emotional situation, and some occur after we have experienced the emotion. In order, these five types are the following:

  1. Situation selection. Situation selection occurs when someone avoids a situation where they are likely to experience a negative emotion, or seeks out a situation where they experience a positive emotion. For example, I don’t like fast rollercoasters, so when I go to an amusement park I’m more likely to go on the slower rides. Most of us engage in situational selection without even realizing it—for example, you might choose to spend an evening with your best friend because you experience joy and laughter around them, but you might not have thought of this as an emotion regulation strategy. However, although there are some situations that we’re better off avoiding, situation selection can be less helpful if it causes us to avoid temporarily unpleasant things that benefit us in the long run (for example, if someone avoids studying, it is likely to cause them to do worse on an upcoming test).
  2. Situation modification. Situational modification occurs when we change a situation in a way so that it has a different effect on our emotions. For example, if you are feeling nervous about a job interview, you might try to make the interview less stressful by practicing a mock interview with a friend so that you feel more prepared. Psychologists have found that this type of coping is beneficial when it helps us to take action (in other words, when we engage with the situation and try to remove or change a stressful event).
  3. Attentional deployment. Attentional deployment occurs when we attempt to change our emotions by changing what we’re focusing on. For example, we may choose to focus on other, non-emotional aspects of the situation, rather than ones that are triggering the unwanted emotion. If you’ve ever closed your eyes or looked away when getting a shot at the doctor’s office, then you’ve used this strategy.
  4. Cognitive change. Cognitive change occurs when we don’t change the event itself, but rather change the way we think about an event. In particular, we may use reappraisal if we try to think about a situation in a new way that makes it less emotional. For example, if you’re nervous about a job interview, you might decide to think of the interview as “an opportunity to learn more about this company” rather than as “something I’m being evaluated on.”
  5. Response modulation. This type of emotion regulation strategy occurs when we have already begun experiencing an emotion. One common form of response modulation is suppression, when we try to hide the emotions we are feeling. For example, if you are in a sad mood but try to appear happy while attending a party, then you would be engaging in suppression.

Which types are most effective? If you’ve guessed that suppression sounds difficult and less likely to work, you’re right. In one study, participants were asked to see a hard-to-watch film. Some participants were told to just watch the film (the neutral condition), while others were told to reappraise what was happening and others were told to suppress their emotions. The researchers found that both suppression and reappraisal reduced outward expressions of emotion. However, suppression increased activity of the cardiovascular system—in other words, even if participants weren’t letting on that they were experiencing an emotion, the film was still affecting them. But for participants who were told to reappraise the video, their cardiovascular activity didn’t differ from the participants in the neutral condition. In other words, if you are feeling a negative emotion, try to think of whether you can see it in a new way. Can you put a more positive spin on what you’re experiencing? Research suggests that, if you do this, you’re likely to experience better outcomes than if you hide your emotions.

Other research has suggested that attentional deployment may help to reduce our experience of negative emotions. In one study, participants who were sensitive to social rejection were asked to recall a time when they had been rejected. Participants were given specific instructions about attentional deployment: some were asked to focus on emotions they had felt, and others were asked to focus on something relatively nonemotional—the details of their physical setting they had been in when they were rejected. Participants who were asked to focus on the nonemotional aspect of the situation reported less hostility when recalling a rejection. In other words, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with an emotion, you may find it helpful to focus your attention on something less emotional in order to give yourself time to “cool down.”

It’s important to remember that even negative emotions can be useful for us. For example, fear might help you to avoid a dangerous situation and anger might help you to stop an injustice. However, there are other times when our initial emotional reaction may not be the best one in a given situation. In these situations, we have a variety of emotion regulation strategies available to us. In particular, when we take action to address a problem, try to see the emotional event in a new way, or focus on something less emotional in order to avoid being overwhelmed, we’re better able to tackle our problems in constructive ways.

How You Can Use This:

  • Prepare: Think about ways to modify potentially stressful situations by taking action to address them before they start.
  • Look for ways to reinterpret negative events in a positive light: look for the “silver lining.”
  • Distraction: If you’re feeling overwhelmed by emotions, take a moment to focus on something non-emotional to “cool down.”

Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.


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