Following our last post on gaining control over our emotions through emotional awareness, this post will focus on how to increase control over our negative emotions through emotion regulation.
What is emotion regulation?
emotion regulation refers to the processes by which we influence:
- which emotions we have
- when we have them
- how we experience them
- how we express them
Although we often try to decrease negative emotions, there is more to emotion regulation than this. Through emotion regulation, we can increase, maintain, and decrease negative and positive emotions.
Studies have shown that being able to up-regulate positive emotions, and down-regulate negative emotions is linked to:
To start off, in this post, we will be focusing on down-regulating negative emotions.
As always, our team of experts in neuroscience and psychology have gone through over 40 scientific studies related to emotions, emotion regulation and consequences of emotion regulation strategies, to provide you with this detailed, science-based guide on how to control your negative emotions through emotion regulation.
How does emotion regulation work?
The easiest way to understand emotion regulation is to see it as a way that we use, or activate, goals in order to influence the way our emotion will unfold.
This goal can be the desired end-point, such as:
- I regulate my anger in order to feel less angry
But it can also be a means for achieving some other valued end, such as:
- I may be motivated to look more interesting in a job-interview than I really am, in order to get the job
- I may increase my anger in order to get pumped before a big game
So how do these goals affect the emotions that we are experiencing?
By setting goals, we can change:
- the intensity of the emotion by increasing, or decreasing emotional experience or behavior.
- Hiding your feelings of distress from your colleagues at work
- Provoking somebody who you feel has wronged you.
- the duration of the emotion by increasing or decreasing how long an emotion lasts.
- Drawing out a positive feeling by sharing good news with others
- Keep thinking back at what went wrong and how you could have done it differently
- the quality of an emotional response.
- Seeing the humorous side of an embarrassing situation
How are emotions formed, and how does emotion regulation fit in with this process?
In short, an emotion is:
- An intense and short-lived feeling,
- Caused by an evaluation of an (real or imagined) event that is of important concern
- Preparing the body to react or pay attention to the event
For more information on emotions and how to increase emotional awareness, please read our article on emotional awareness.
If we were to put an emotion on a timeline, we would see that it starts with a situation in which an event happens. This event comes to your attention, and you appraise it as something that is important to you. An emotion is formed as it readies you to react or pay attention to the event.
According to the process model of emotion regulation, there exist a couple of emotion-regulatory processes that can be distinguished on the basis of where in this emotion-generation process they influence the emotion that we want to regulate.
Specifically, we can regulate emotions by:
- Choosing which situations we enter (or not) based on the expected emotional outcomes (Situation Selection)
- Modifying those situations once we are in them (Situation Modification)
- Directing our attention to specific features of the situation (Attentional Deployment)
- Changing the meaning we attach to those features (Cognitive Change)
Altering our physiological, experiential, and behavioral responses towards an emotion (Suppression)
For now this may sound very vague, so let’s dive in with a simplified example of a step by step approach to down-regulate a negative emotion, such as anxiety.
Imagine that, tomorrow you have to give an important presentation to your boss and the board of directors. You have learned the presentation by heart, but you still feel anxious for the presentation.
Let’s say we would like to regulate this anxiety. Following the process model of emotion, we could try and regulate our anxiety in a couple of places.
Situation Selection in Emotion Regulation
The first place where we can try and regulate our anxiety is by choosing which situation we want to be in. By avoiding, or approaching certain places, people or things you can increase (or decrease) a desired (or unwanted) emotion.
So let’s look at our example situation. You might do a last minute study session in order to use all the time you learn your presentation. Remaining in this situation might trigger more anxiety, as you are constantly confronted with tomorrow’s presentation.
Another option might be to have dinner with a friend who you know always makes you laugh. By choosing the second situation, you are regulating your anxiety by increasing positive emotions, and removing yourself from an anxiety producing situation.
Situation Modification in Emotion Regulation
Once you are in a situation, it is possible to adjust the situation in order to decrease your anxiety. Looking back at our example, if during dinner your friend was to ask whether you’re ready for the presentation, you can modify the situation by telling your friend that you would rather talk about the plans for the upcoming holiday, as to not think too much about the presentation. By actively shaping the situation, it is possible to decrease the experience of negative emotions, by increasing the experience of positive emotions.
Attentional Deployment in Emotion Regulation
The next ingredient for an emotion to form is attention. The goal of attentional deployment is to direct your attention towards aspects of the situation that help you reduce your anxiety.
Let’s say that for instance, during dinner, you receive a text message from a friend wishing you good luck for the presentation. Seeing the message might give you anxiety, as it reminds you of the presentation. In other words, deploying attention towards the message might increase your negative emotion.
Lucky for us, this also works the other way around. Deploying your attention to something else in the situation, might reduce the impact of the message, as you are “flooding” your work memory, thereby limiting the resources that are available for unconsciously processing the negative aspect of the situation.
Attentional deployment does not only have to be distracting yourself, as you can also choose to focus in on a certain topic to increase a certain emotion, like putting extra attention toward the nice time that you are having, or to the fact that your friend is willing to help you set your mind off of the presentation.
Cognitive Change in Emotion Regulation
Once you have chosen to put attention towards a particular aspect of the situation that elicits anxiety, the last step to prevent the negative emotion from forming is to attach a different meaning to the event.
Let’s take the text message as an example. At first you might think of it as a reminder of your presentation. On the other hand, this message can also be seen as an indication that your friend is invested in your friendship, and wishes you good luck.
Cognitive change might also be applied to the presentation itself. Instead of thinking that you might ruin your career if you were to screw up the presentation, you can also see it as a chance to prove yourself that you are ready for that promotion.
Changing the personal meaning that is assigned to a situation can have a powerful impact on the emotional response, as it has the power to change the emotion entirely (anxious for failure versus excited for a chance of promotion).
Response Modulation in Emotion Regulation
The last place to regulate your emotions is to directly influence the response towards the emotion that you are experiencing. Let’s say that for instance that you felt that the presentation went horrible. As you don’t want your co-workers to know, you might try to hide your embarrassment in order to try and decrease the negative emotions that you are experiencing.
On the other hand, you might also show your sadness towards your significant other, as you know that they will give you comfort, thereby decreasing your negative emotion.
As you may have noticed while reading this example, it is very difficult to distill each step into one separate entity, as a strategy might bring forth new emotions, which each can be regulated in its own right. What is important to take away from this example is that you can take certain steps to help you regulate your emotions based on how far your emotion has developed.
How to reverse-engineer the emotion regulation process, and regulate your negative emotions
So the next time you feel a negative emotion that you would like to regulate, try these 6 steps
Step 1: Define an end-goal for the emotion you want to regulate
Before we can start regulating an emotion, we first need to define which emotion we want to regulate and more importantly what are our desired result is. Ask yourself:
- Why am I experiencing this emotion?
- Is it beneficial to experience this emotion at this moment?
- What do I want to achieve with this emotion?
- Do I want to reduce my negative emotion? (e.g. reducing sadness)
- Do I want to increase my negative emotion? (e.g. getting angry/pumped up before a big game)
- What goal do I set in order to regulate my emotion?
Step 2: Think about your emotion in a situational context
The next step is to assess your current situation.
- How does my situation fit the emotion that I want to regulate?
- Is it possible to change my situation?
- How will changing my situation help me in reaching my desired goal?
- What situation will help me best achieve my desired result?
Step 3: Modify your current situation to help you reach your goal
If you can’t change your situation, ask yourself how you can actively shape your current situation in order to reach your goal.
- Would it help if I were to inform the people around me about my emotion?
- Would it help to remove or include a certain object, person or thing in order to reach my goal?
Step 4: Shift your focus on aspects that help you reach your goal
The next step is to analyze your situation. Look around and see what is happening.
- Will it help me if I were to put my attention away from what I am experiencing?
- Is there something happening around me that will increase my desired emotion?
- Is there something in my situation that I can focus upon to distract me from my emotion?
Step 5: Change the meaning of the event to suit your desired end-goal
Why are you feeling the emotion that you are experiencing? Will it be beneficial to change my opinion about the situation, or will it help me reach my goal to be convinced that what I am feeling is what I am supposed to be feeling?
- Is it really what it seems, or is it possible to look at the emotion from another perspective?
- Will I feel more at ease if I were to change my opinion about the matter?
- Is it really THAT bad, or could it be much worse?
- Is it really negative, or is it possible to see a silver lining in the situation?
Step 6: Adjust how you experience your emotion
How will the expression of my emotion influence my environment?
- Will it help my goal if I share my emotional experience with my environment?
- Will my emotion endure if I am to show it to my environment?
- Is it perhaps better to not show how I am actually feeling?
What emotion regulation strategy should I use?
Broadly speaking, based on when you try to use an emotion regulation strategy, we can make a distinction between antecedent-focussed strategies and response-focussed strategies.
Antecedent-focused strategies are the things we do before the emotion has fully formed itself and has changed our behavior, such as Situation Selection, Situation Modification, Attentional Deployment and Cognitive Change.
Response-focused strategies, as the name implies, refer to the things we do once the emotion has fully formed, and is influencing our behavior, such as Response Modulation, or in the case of down-regulating negative emotions, Suppression.
It is important to note that, depending on where in the process of emotion generation you are, it will be harder to regulate your emotions.
From an effort-based perspective, suppression can be seen as a worst-case scenario, as suppression occurs when the emotion is already in volition. Take anger for instance. It takes a lot of effort to restrain yourself from yelling at somebody when you feel your anger is in full force. Or in the case of anxiety, trying to hold your composure when you feel you are having a panic attack.
These examples are of course a bit extreme, and it might be unlikely that the next time you feel anger, or anxiety, you will fly into a rage, or have a panic attack, but the point is that trying to suppress the emotion hands-on will take effort. When you have to put in more effort, you have less energy, or resources, to put towards socially interacting with the event, and even remembering facts of the event.
Therefore, the best way of down-regulating negative emotions is to prevent them from forming. Of course this is easier said than done, and sometimes it isn’t even possible. So what is the best strategy to use when you feel that the emotion is growing?
Well according to multiple studies, the best way to handle negative emotions is to use the reappraisal strategy.
Looking back at our process model, we can see that reappraisal is a form of Cognitive Change, by which you re-evaluate potential emotion-eliciting situations in order to decrease the emotional impact.
As Reappraisal occurs early in the emotion-generative process and effectively neutralizes the situation, the negative emotion will not occur. This means that similar to suppression, you don’t express the negative emotion, but you also don’t have to put in extra physical effort.
Let’s take a look at anger again. You’ve made a small mistake at work, and your boss is chewing you out. You feel like you did nothing wrong and feel you are getting angry. Showing anger towards your boss might not be the best approach, therefore, instead of actively suppressing your anger, you could try and reappraise the situation by thinking, “This is not about me. I know I’ve made a mistake, but I do good work. My boss must be having a bad day.”
Similar to suppressing your anger, you are not showing your anger towards your boss, but now it is not because you are putting effort into keeping it in, but by reevaluating and letting the anger form.
Research has shown us that people who predominantly use reappraisal as emotion regulation strategy, on average, have fewer depressive symptoms, and greater self-esteem and life satisfaction, compared to people who predominantly use suppression as their go to emotion regulation strategy.
Several studies on suppression and reappraisal found that, suppression is linked to higher levels of emotional eating, and in terms of experiencing anger, high re-appraisers report less anger, less negative emotion and higher positive emotions, in comparison to people who use suppression to regulate their emotions.
Recap of how to increase control over negative emotions through emotion regulation
In order to increase your control over your negative emotions, you should try and make it a habit to analyze the situation you are in and see how you can adjust it in order to regulate your emotion. So the next time you want to regulate a negative emotion, try to analyze your situation using the six step method.
- Define your emotion and think of a desired end-goal
- Does my current situation fit my end-goal, or can I leave this situation?
- Can I modify my current situation in order to reach my desired goal?
- Can I redirect my attention in order to reach my goal?
- Can I change the meaning of the event to fit my desired end-goal?
- Can I adjust how I am experiencing the emotion, in order to reach my desired end-goal?
First try and use this method in order to get the hang of this emotion regulation process. Once you get better at analyzing your situations, try and use the reappraisal method. Once you get better at reappraising, you will see that you will experience less negative emotions and more positive emotions all together.
Again, practice makes perfect, and just as with any other skill, you need to put time and effort into it in order to improve your emotion regulation skills.
Additionally, just as you can down-regulate negative emotions using these strategies, it is also possible to up-regulate positive emotions. Although it functions on the same theoretical background, up-regulating, or capitalizing on positive emotions deserves an entire post on its own. So please look forward to our next post on how to improve your life by capitalizing on positive emotions.