Emotion regulation: which strategies to employ?

Emotion regulation is a set of processes that control manifestation, expression, strength and duration of emotions, which critically influence our daily life and mental health. Adaptive strategies of emotion regulation tend to produce constructive outcomes such as reduced negative reactions to stress, while maladaptive strategies can substantially contribute to mental disorders.

Attention control, acceptance, reappraisal, problem solving as well as rumination, avoidance, and suppression are among key strategies of emotion regulation. Research points out that maladaptive emotion control strategies, such as rumination, avoidance, and suppression are linked to psychopathology to a great extent as opposed to the adaptive emotion regulation methods – attention control, reappraisal, acceptance, and problem solving.

Attention control plays a significant role in decreasing adverse effects of stressful events on people’s life. The strategy consists of two major components–the ability to focus on the task and the ability to shift attention.

Problem solving refers to a deliberate action (e.g. brainstorming) that aims at modifying a stressful incident through adjusting to stressors or eliminating them. Studies demonstrate that a lack of problem-solving abilities may lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. Problem-solving skill training is a component of cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) designed to treat these disorders.

Reappraisal involves benign and encouraging interpretations or appraisals of negative situations to transform their meaning and reduce their negative impact on emotions. Several models (e.g. Beck’s, 1976) showed that maladaptive appraisals are at the core of anxiety and depression; thus, CBT for anxiety and depression emphasise reappraisal skill learning.

The concept of mindfulness has been gaining an increasing interest. Although the mechanisms of mindfulness are yet to be understood and defined, researchers agree on its non-judgmental nature. Acceptance strategy is aimed at realising emotions without judging or altering them.

Imagery re-scripting is another adaptive strategy employed to regulate elicited emotions. Re-scripting aims at updating and correcting recollections of negative or traumatic experiences, as memories do not represent events in a static way. Beck, one of the fathers of cognitive therapy, adopted this method from P. Janet, who first presented it in 1919.

All these adaptive strategies have a similar effect of reducing daily distress by altering aversive components of emotions.

By contrast, suppression (suppressing negative thoughts and/or feelings) and avoidance (avoiding circumstances that may be unpleasant) are known as maladaptive strategies, which may result in anxiety, depression or substance abuse. Although suppression in the short-term perspective may decrease the external expression of emotion and, perhaps, the subjective experience of emotion, in the long run it will be ineffective for reducing emotional and physiological distress. As an alternative to suppression and avoidance, some people engage in rumination, or perseverative and repetitive negative thinking about their concerns; however, rumination has an inverse relationship with problem solving, and it is a key feature of a clinical problem.

To sum up, adaptive strategies such as attention control, acceptance, reappraisal, problem solving and re-scripting are linked to wellbeing, whereas maladaptive rumination, avoidance and suppression are inefficient ways of coping with stress and are strongly associated with psychopathology.

Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(2), 217-237. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2009.11.004
Hofmann, S. G., Heering, S., Sawyer, A. T., & Asnaani, A. (2009). How to handle anxiety: The effects of reappraisal, acceptance, and suppression strategies on anxious arousal. Behaviour research and therapy, 47(5), 389–394. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.02.010
Hopp, H., Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). The unconscious pursuit of emotion regulation: implications for psychological health. Cognition & emotion, 25(3), 532–545. doi:10.1080/02699931.2010.532606
Otterpohl, N., Schwinger, M., & Wild, E. (2016). Exploring the Interplay of Adaptive and Maladaptive Strategies. The Journal Of Early Adolescence, 36(8), 1042-1069. doi: 10.1177/0272431615593174
Williams, L. E., Bargh, J. A., Nocera, C. C., & Gray, J. R. (2009). The unconscious regulation of emotion: nonconscious reappraisal goals modulate emotional reactivity. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 9(6), 847–854. doi:10.1037/a0017745

Featured image designed by Wirestock–Freepik

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