Emotions are inseparable parts of our daily lives. We are constantly exposed to various stimuli in our environment which trigger both positive and negative emotions, even though we don’t always notice it.
These emotions may be quite overwhelming for us from time to time, and it might be difficult to understand the mechanisms underlying our reactions that precede our emotions. To illustrate, you might see a friend of yours on the street and feel really disappointed if she doesn’t say hi to you. You might even stop contacting her, at least for a while. However, some people would not react in such an intense way. But why?
Emotion regulation might be the answer. Researchers define emotion regulation as a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. There are different strategies that we use to regulate our emotions in our daily life. For example, distracting ourselves from a stressful situation in order to feel less anxious, avoiding certain situations that we think will evoke painful emotions, watching funny movies to feel more positive, or explaining the things that happen to us in a more rational way are all emotion regulation strategies. Some of these strategies are more or less helpful than the others depending on the situation and our purpose in a particular situation. Researchers also found that while certain strategies, such as suppressing our feelings constantly, are unhealthy in the long-run, some, such as cognitive restructuring (e.g., perceiving events and situations in a more realistic perspective), are more adaptive.
Since we often encounter situations that essentially require us to manage our emotions, improving our emotion regulation skills is crucial for our wellbeing. However, as it has become an ever-more popular topic, there are misunderstandings and misconceptions around experiencing our emotions, as well as regulation of emotions.
One of these beliefs claims that negative emotions are inherently ‘bad’. There are plenty of self-help books which advice people to get rid of their unpleasant emotions and instead try to feel the “desirable” ones. For example, anger is normally considered a negative emotion, an emotion that should be avoided or suppressed. However, negative emotions have important functions as well. It would be impossible to survive, understand ourselves, or have a meaningful life without feeling angry, sad, afraid, disappointed, or ashamed. Besides, it is assumed that people will choose positive emotions over negative ones to decrease the pain in their lives. However, a study conducted by Kashdan and his colleagues has shown that people might prefer to feel negative emotions due to their functional values depending on the situation.
Try to remember a really upsetting event you have experienced recently. Have you ever felt like you would feel sad about it forever? If so, you’re not alone. We have this misbelief that regardless of what we feel – happy, sad, angry or surprised – we overestimate how long that emotion will last. While neuroscientists have claimed that lifespan of emotions is just 90 seconds, our cognitive processes like rumination make us believe that we will experience a particular emotion for a long time.
What about controlling our emotions? Many of us think that emotion regulation is all about ‘controlling’ our emotions. However, it is not possible, nor healthy to totally control our emotions. Regulating emotions is more about recognising our emotions, especially the ones that trouble us, accepting them, and working on them in a way that helps us move on. Going back to the example I gave earlier, rather than making unrealistic assumptions about that friend of yours who didn’t greet you, you may try to become more rational and perhaps explain the situation differently. She might not have seen you, or she might have had something on her mind that bothered her and that kept her from noticing you. This sort of cognitive restructuring is an example of an emotion regulation strategy.
There is no one correct way of experiencing, expressing or even regulating our emotions. This depends so much on the situation, your personality, and your purpose – in terms of what you would like to achieve – at the time. If you would like to become better at regulating your emotions, it might be worth trying to learn some strategies that may help you in different situations.
For further reading
Kashdan, T. B., Young, K. C., & Machell, K. A. (2015). Positive emotion regulation: Addressing two myths. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 117-121. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2014.12.012