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Reputable Techniques to Regulate Your Emotions

Published in the August issue of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, a recent review paper by Boemo et al. examines the relationship between emotion-regulation strategies and affect (i.e., emotions or mood).

Specifically, the paper explores the association between the use of emotion-regulation strategies in daily life and both current and future mood.



Emotion-Regulation Strategies


For context, these are the most commonly used adaptive and maladaptive emotion-regulation strategies:


* Acceptance: Accepting the fact that the unpleasant situation in question has occurred and being open to (as opposed to avoiding or judging) one’s uncomfortable emotional reactions to the situation.

* Distraction: Directing attention away from the source of stress and toward unrelated activities.

* Problem-solving: Conscious attempts to alter the stressful situation or its consequences, by finding effective solutions.

* Reappraisal: Reframing and reinterpreting the aversive event to alter its meaning and to see it in a neutral or positive light (e.g., viewing something not as a problem but as a challenge or opportunity).

* Rumination: Focusing, repeatedly, on one’s negative mood or on the depressive symptoms and what they might mean. Rumination has been shown to increase vulnerability to depression.

* Suppression: Conscious attempts to inhibit the expression of emotions (e.g., “poker face”).

* Worry: Repetitive and often uncontrollable thoughts concerning an undesirable but uncertain future outcome. Though misguided, worry is essentially an attempt at problem-solving.


Note, rumination, and worry are related but they are not the same. Compared to worry, rumination is focused more on loss (as opposed to anticipating potential threats) and on the past (as opposed to worrying about the future).


The study by Boemo and coauthors analyzed, as described below, the relationship between the use of emotion-regulation strategies and current/future emotions in daily life.


Findings on Emotion-Regulation Strategy Use and Current Mood


Analysis of data on the relationship between emotion-regulation tactics employed and current mood showed the following:

Suppression was associated with a negative mood but not a positive mood, which suggests suppression is used mainly when people experience negative emotions.


Rumination was similarly associated with negative mood. The authors note the “daily contemporaneous relation between rumination and negative affect was the largest effect size (r = 0.68, p < .001) found in our study.”

Like rumination and suppression, the worry was related to negative emotions. Acceptance, distraction, problem-solving, and reappraisal, however, were not.


What about positive affect? The data showed that problem-solving, acceptance, and reappraisal were related to positive mood.

No emotion-regulation strategy was linked with both positive and negative emotions, which supports the idea that positive and negative emotions are relatively independent.



Emotion-Regulation Strategy Use and Future Mood


What about future mood?


Greater reappraisal predicted future mood—both lower negative mood and higher positive mood.


Rumination and suppression were related to negative emotions, whereas distraction was linked with positive emotions.


Furthermore, in studies where unpleasant emotions were experimentally induced, the use of reappraisal often resulted in reduced negative emotions over time as well.


So, reappraisal appears to be a powerful and adaptive way of regulating emotions. Not surprisingly, many effective therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive behavioral interventions, teach clients how to employ reappraisal.



How to Use Reappraisal


The above results showed that the emotion-regulation technique of reappraisal (i.e., reframing negative and stressful situations in a neutral or positive light) predicts increases in positive emotions and often also a reduction in negative emotions, both presently and over time. This agrees with previous research linking reappraisal with better mood (e.g., happiness, joy, self-esteem and confidence, optimism) and greater interpersonal functioning.


So, I end with an example of how to use reappraisal in your daily life:


Suppose you receive a diagnosis of a serious disease during a yearly check-up. There is an effective treatment available but the treatment can be painful and also requires that you take two to three months off work.


Initially, you may engage in catastrophization—a maladaptive emotion-regulation tactic that involves imagining the worst outcome (e.g., unbearable pain, zero quality of life, early death).


But then you remember to use reappraisal and reframe the situation more positively. For instance, you try to:


* View the illness not as a problem but as a challenge.

* compare yourself to the less fortunate (those with more serious diseases or with no access to quality medical care).

* think about the benefits of early diagnosis (which was due to regular medical check-ups) and thus early treatment.

* see the time off work as an opportunity to catch up on readings or watch your favorite movies.


Remember that whatever the stressor—be it an illness, car accident, infidelity, divorce, proceedings, employment termination, bad investments, or financial decisions—it is often possible to reduce the intensity of negative emotional reactions by reframing the stressful situation and changing its meaning.

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