What Is Emotion Regulation?

Emotion regulation or emotional self-regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.[1] It can also be defined as extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions.

Emotion self-regulation belongs to the broader set of emotion-regulation processes, which includes both the regulation of one’s own feelings and the regulation of other people’s feelings.

Emotional regulation is a complex process that involves initiating, inhibiting, or modulating one’s state or behavior in a given situation – for example the subjective experience (feelings), cognitive responses (thoughts), emotion-related physiological responses (for example heart rate or hormonal activity), and emotion-related behavior (bodily actions or expressions).

Functionally, emotional regulation can also refer to processes such as the tendency to focus one’s attention to a task and the ability to suppress inappropriate behavior under instruction. Emotional regulation is a highly significant function in human life.

Emotion Dysregulation

Every day, people are continually exposed to a wide variety of potentially arousing stimuli. Inappropriate, extreme or unchecked emotional reactions to such stimuli could impede functional fit within society; therefore, people must engage in some form of emotion regulation almost all of the time.

Generally speaking, emotional dysregulation has been defined as difficulties in controlling the influence of emotional arousal on the organization and quality of thoughts, actions, and interactions. Individuals who are emotionally dysregulated exhibit patterns of responding in which there is a mismatch between their goals, responses, and/or modes of expression, and the demands of the social environment.[2]

For example, there is a significant association between emotion dysregulation and symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating pathology, and substance abuse. Higher levels of emotion regulation are likely to be related to both high levels of social competence and the expression of socially appropriate emotions.

Strategies For Emotional Regulation

Situation Selection

Situation selection involves choosing to avoid or approach an emotionally relevant situation. If a person selects to avoid or disengage from an emotionally relevant situation, he or she is decreasing the likelihood of experiencing an emotion.

Alternatively, if a person selects to approach or engage with an emotionally relevant situation, he or she is increasing the likelihood of experiencing an emotion.

Typical examples of situation selection may be seen interpersonally, such as when a parent removes his or her child from an emotionally unpleasant situation. Use of situation selection may also be seen in psychopathology. For example, avoidance of social situations to regulate emotions is particularly pronounced for those with social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder.

Effective situation selection is not always an easy task. For instance, humans display difficulties predicting their emotional responses to future events. Therefore, they may have trouble making accurate and appropriate decisions about which emotionally relevant situations to approach or to avoid.

Situation Modification

Situation modification involves efforts to modify a situation so as to change its emotional impact. Situation modification refers specifically to altering one’s external, physical environment. Altering one’s “internal” environment to regulate emotion is called cognitive change.

Examples of situation modification may include injecting humor into a speech to elicit laughter or extending the physical distance between oneself and another person.

Attentional Deployment

Attentional deployment involves directing one’s attention towards or away from an emotional situation.

Distraction

Distraction, an example of attentional deployment, is an early selection strategy, which involves diverting one’s attention away from an emotional stimulus and towards other content.

Distraction has been shown to reduce the intensity of painful and emotional experiences, to decrease facial responding and neural activation in the amygdala associated with emotion, as well as to alleviate emotional distress.

As opposed to reappraisal, individuals show a relative preference to engage in distraction when facing stimuli of high negative emotional intensity. This is because distraction easily filters out high-intensity emotional content, which would otherwise be relatively difficult to appraise and process.[3]

Rumination

Rumination, an example of attentional deployment, is defined as the passive and repetitive focusing of one’s attention on one’s symptoms of distress and the causes and consequences of these symptoms. Rumination is generally considered a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy, as it tends to exacerbate emotional distress.

It has also been implicated in a host of disorders including major depression.

Worry

Worry, an example of attentional deployment, involves directing attention to thoughts and images concerned with potentially negative events in the future. By focusing on these events, worrying serves to aid in the downregulation of intense negative emotion and physiological activity.

While worry may sometimes involve problem solving, incessant worry is generally considered maladaptive, being a common feature of anxiety disorders, particularly generalized anxiety disorder.

Thought Suppression

Thought suppression, an example of attentional deployment, involves efforts to redirect one’s attention from specific thoughts and mental images to other content so as to modify one’s emotional state.

Although thought suppression may provide temporary relief from undesirable thoughts, it may ironically end up spurring the production of even more unwanted thoughts. This strategy is generally considered maladaptive, being most associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Cognitive Change

Cognitive change involves changing how one appraises a situation so as to alter its emotional meaning.

Reappraisal

Reappraisal, an example of cognitive change, is a late selection strategy, which involves reinterpreting the meaning of an event so as to alter its emotional impact. For example, this might involve reinterpreting an event by broadening one’s perspective to see the bigger picture. Reappraisal has been shown to effectively reduce physiological, subjective, and neural emotional responding.

As opposed to distraction, individuals show a relative preference to engage in reappraisal when facing stimuli of low negative emotional intensity because these stimuli are relatively easy to appraise and process.

Reappraisal is generally considered to be an adaptive emotion-regulation strategy. Compared to suppression, which is correlated negatively with many psychological disorders, reappraisal can be associated with better interpersonal outcomes, and can be positively related to wellbeing.

However, some researchers argue that context is important when evaluating the adaptiveness of a strategy, suggesting that in some contexts reappraisal may be maladaptive.

Distancing

Distancing, an example of cognitive change, involves taking on an independent, third-person perspective when evaluating an emotional event. Distancing has been shown to be an adaptive form of self-reflection, facilitating the emotional processing of negatively valenced stimuli, reducing emotional and cardiovascular reactivity to negative stimuli, and increasing problem-solving behavior.

Humor

Humor, an example of cognitive change, has been shown to be an effective emotion regulation strategy. Specifically, positive, good-natured humor has been shown to effectively upregulate positive emotion and downregulate negative emotion. On the other hand, negative, mean-spirited humor is less effective in this regard.

Response Modulation

Response modulation involves attempts to directly influence experiential, behavioral, and physiological response systems.

Expressive Suppression

Expressive suppression, an example of response modulation, involves inhibiting emotional expressions. It has been shown to effectively reduce facial expressivity, subjective feelings of positive emotion, heart rate, and sympathetic activation.

However, the research is mixed regarding whether this strategy is effective for downregulating negative emotion. Research has also shown that expressive suppression may have negative social consequences, correlating with reduced personal connections and greater difficulties forming relationships.

Expressive suppression is generally considered to be a maladaptive emotion-regulation strategy. Compared to reappraisal, it is correlated positively with many psychological disorders, associated with worse interpersonal outcomes, is negatively related to wellbeing, and requires the mobilization of a relatively substantial amount of cognitive resources.

However, some researchers argue that context is important when evaluating the adaptiveness of a strategy, suggesting that in some contexts suppression may be adaptive.

Exercise

Exercise, an example of response modulation, can be used to downregulate the physiological and experiential effects of negative emotions. Regular physical activity has also been shown to reduce emotional distress and improve emotional control.

Sleep

Sleep plays a role in emotion regulation, although stress and worry can also interfere with sleep. Studies have shown that sleep, specifically REM sleep, down-regulates reactivity of the amygdala, a brain structure known to be involved in the processing of emotions, in response to previous emotional experiences. On the flip side, sleep deprivation is associated with greater emotional reactivity or overreaction to negative and stressful stimuli.

This is a result of both increased amygdala activity and a disconnect between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates the amygdala through inhibition, together resulting in an overactive emotional brain. Due to the subsequent lack of emotional control, sleep deprivation may be associated with depression, impulsivity, and mood swings.

Additionally, there is some evidence that sleep deprivation may reduce emotional reactivity to positive stimuli and events and impair emotion recognition in others.

[1] Cole, Pamela M., et al. The Development of Emotion Regulation and Dysregulation: A Clinical Perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, vol. 59, no. 2/3, 1994, pp. 73–100. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1166139.

[2] Zeman, J.; Cassano, M.; Perry-Parrish, C.; Stegall, S. (2006). Emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 27 (2): 155–168. doi:10.1097/00004703-200604000-00014

[3] Sheppes, G.; Scheibe, S.; Suri, G.; Gross, J. J. (2011). Emotion-regulation choice. Psychological Science. 22 (11): 1391–1396. doi:10.1177/0956797611418350