Emotional Control: Strategies we use for regulating our emotions

Emotions are a central component of the human experience.  They facilitate social interactions, allow us to both appreciate and create powerful works in arts and literature, and guide us in achieving personal goals.  These are only a few of the myriad ways that demonstrate the important role emotions play in our lives.  In a letter to his brother Theodore, Vincent Van Gogh (1889) advised him not to forget that “emotions are the captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.”  Given the source, we might not be inclined to trust such an insight on affect from someone who’s life was plagued by severe emotional distress, but common experience forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of truth to his words: there exist times in each of our lives where we have found ourselves fallen under the sway of an intense emotional experience without even realizing it (at first at least).  Perhaps we were propelled to an angry outburst at a reckless driver, or could not hold back the tears while watching a sad movie.  Indeed, much research has been carried out investigating the ways in which emotions influence our cognitive abilities such as our attention, memory, and decision-making of which we might not even be consciously aware (Dolan 2002).
But we are not the slaves to emotion Van Gogh suggested we are; the direction of control between our emotions and our conscious selves is not a one-way street as we are indeed capable of deliberately modulating our own emotions.  True, there are times when we are swept away by a powerful emotion, but being tossed to and fro by every emotional experience would undoubtedly spell disaster.  However, humans are highly adaptive creatures and we have developed the capacity to influence what emotions we have, when we have them, and how we express them (Gross 1998a).  This ability is reflected even within the neural connections between emotional and higher-order cognitive processing areas in the brain which themselves contain a bidirectional relationship, each region being reciprocally connected and capable of influencing the other (LeDoux 1992).

Emotion regulation is a relatively recent topic of research in psychology.  Though it has roots as far back as Freud’s psychodynamic study of defense (Gross 2002), only in the past few decades has a majority of the work that has shaped emotion regulation as a research topic been conducted.  Affect, as a topic of psychological inquiry, is diverse and includes a broad range of experiential phenomena and understanding emotion regulation is predicated upon understanding just what an emotion is.  Current models consider emotions as valenced responses to either external or internal stimuli that involve changes across several response systems (experiential, behavioral, and physiological) and have identifiable triggers thus differentiating emotions from moods, which lack a specific object (Ochsner & Gross 2005).  The dominant model of emotion regulation, as put forth by Gross (1998b), holds a conception of emotion generation that considers an emotional experience as beginning with an evaluation of this trigger which leads to a coordinated set of response tendencies across the systems listed above that resolve over time and facilitate an adaptive response to the initial trigger (John & Gross 2004).  The figure below (taken from Gross 1998b) presents a simplified view of the emotion generation process.

Emotion regulation is explained in the literature as the set of extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for modifying emotional reactions (Thompson 1994).  An issue with defining emotion regulation in this way is that it includes an enormous amount of possible strategies that can be employed to achieve a desired modulation of emotion.  Researchers have attempted to resolve this by organizing strategies of regulation in broad categories and subordinal families.  Because the experience of an emotion is not instantaneous but instead plays out over time, one of the ways in which emotion regulation strategies have been organized is by the time in which they occur during the emotion generation process.  Gross (1998a) has categorized strategies as antecedent-focused if they operate by manipulating input to the emotion generation system shown above or alternately as response-focused when manipulation of the system’s output occurs.  In order to better understand this organizational scheme of emotion regulation strategies, it is helpful to describe the families of strategies contained within as explained by Gross (1998a, 2002).

The first is situation selection, in which individuals either avoid or approach a place, person, or other potential cue to regulate their emotional response.  An example of this would be a student who chronically experiences anxiety when writing papers choosing not to take a class in college that would require a paper during the term.  This strategy is an obvious example of an antecedent-focused strategy of regulation, as are several of the follow families of strategies, because it prevents the emotion from being generated by denying altogether the circumstance in which it would develop.  Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that while we often think of emotion regulation as eliminating unwanted emotional responses, the term also includes the encouragement of experiencing or otherwise increasing desired emotional responses.  Continuing the term paper example, the student might choose to enroll in a class that requires a paper to learn to cope with writing anxiety.

Once a situation has been selected, situation modification may take place whereby an individual alters elements within the situation to increase or decrease its ability to elicit an emotional response.  In the context of the term paper example, our student might choose a paper topic that is easier or more interesting to write on, thus making the process less anxiety-inducing.  Alternately, he may choose a harder paper topic to challenge himself and perhaps write a better received paper at the risk of experiencing high levels of anxiety while doing so.

Because situations have various aspects available to attend to, an individual might engage in attentional deployment by choosing to focus on one or another aspect to modulate the situation’s emotional impact.  Instead of focusing on how much more is left to write in the term paper, our student may choose instead to keep in mind the progress he has already made to reduce anxiety the thought of more writing will bring.  If he finds anxiety particularly motivating to keep him on track, perhaps he would do exactly the opposite.

The last of the antecedent-focused family of strategies is cognitive control in which an individual attaches or alters the specific meaning of a situation to alter its emotional impact.  Using cognitive control, our student might reconstrue the term paper as an opportunity to learn something interesting about a topic instead of as an opportunity to fail.  Within this family of strategies, and even among all regulation strategies, the most researched strategy is reappraisal, which comes in two flavors.  Self-focused reappraisal involves acknowledging the emotional content on a stimulus but denying personal relevance and this taking a detached or distanced stance to the emotional cue whereas situation-focused reappraisal instead requires the individual to reinterpret the stimulus in a way that makes it, typically, seem less negative (Kalisch 2005), an example of the latter being an individual seeing a scene of gore and reinterpreting it as simply a display of props from a movie set.  The lion’s share of neuroimaging research done on emotion regulation investigates reappraisal and will discussed in future posts.

The final strategy family of emotion regulation, and to date the only one that considered in the literature to be response-focused by researchers, is response modulation.  Strategies within this family engage in attempting to alter any of the response tendencies (experiential, physiological, and behavioral) once they have already been activated.  The most commonly thought of strategy here is suppression, which specifically targets the behavioral response tendency by preventing any outwardly observable expression of emotion.  We might imagine our student forcefully putting a stop to any anxious fidgeting behavior he exhibits while writing.

An interesting example of response modulation arises with the use of drugs to modulate physiological response tendencies of emotion generation.  Taking medication to relieve physiological symptoms resulting from a generated emotion seems a clear example of response modulation; but what if an individual takes a daily regimen of anti-anxiety medications?  In this case, the individual is not only targeting physiological response tendencies, but is also engaging in a form of situation selection by altering the set of future selectable scenarios that now incorporate this medication.  Additionally, the act of taking medication after the onset of a physiological response can be seen as a form of situation modification for emotions generated later in that scenario.  These examples serve to illuminate two complexities of emotion regulation.  Firstly, we often engage in multiple strategies to reach a single regulatory goal as in the first example.  We are able to approach our goal from several directions to provide the greatest chance for success.  Secondly, emotional responses become an element of the situation and can even become the trigger for the generation of a subsequent emotion, especially during social interaction as we often generate our own emotion reaction to the emotions of others.  This recursive nature of the emotion generation process complicates how we view an event of emotion generation and regulation, but typically researchers have chosen instead to focus on a single, stand-alone event, rather than address this complication in full.  Nonetheless, understanding more about the time-course and strategies involved in emotion regulation, we can expand the diagram from before to include more specific information about these elements as shown in the image below(taken from Gross 1998a).

Generally, this organizational scheme of antecedent- and response-focused for regulation strategies overlaps heavily with another distinction between cognitive modulations that tend to occur early in the emotion generation process and behavioral responses that tend to occur later (Ochsner & Gross 2005).  This new distinction proves informative as research has shown divergent consequences in several distinct domains when employing one category of strategy over another.  Behavioral regulation of emotion tends to reduce overt expression, but leads to poorer memory recall for the event (Richards & Gross 2000), does little to alter the experiential response, and can even lead to increased physiological arousal compared to cognitive strategies of regulation which hold none of these adverse consequences and instead prove to be much more effective at reducing the experience of negative affect (Gross 2002).  However, nearly all of the research done investigating divergent consequences of behavioral and cognitive strategies of regulation compares only the specific strategies of reappraisal and suppression, extrapolating results from these two and attributing them to the broader categories they fall under.  Likely, these strategies have been the most researched because they are relatively simple to perform, self-contained and thus easily studied in a laboratory setting.  But in order to be able to accurately attribute these divergent consequences to the behavioral and cognitive strategy categories (instead of one specific example from each), much more research must be done investigating the divergent consequences of other strategies that have yet to be studied.


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