Biological and Environmental Impacts on Emotion Regulation

A fundamental aspect of the human experience is undeniably emotion. Love, anger, happiness, fear: these are concepts that we are all intimately familiar with, but their subjective experience can vary widely person to person. Take, for instance, you are sitting at the bus stop. You happen to be running late, for a pretty important meeting, and all of a sudden the bus you have been waiting for for the last twenty minutes speeds past you without stopping. This is most likely an upsetting experience, and may understandably provoke anger or frustration. But how much? Emotion regulation is the ability to respond to and manage emotional response, and it is a complex process consisting of multiple interactive components. These skills vary person to person, and can be a function of biological predisposition, environmental input, and previous experience. These things might add up to a person who watches the bus go by and thinks calmly to themselves, “I’ll just catch the next one.”

Or, they might add up to a person who chases the bus down the street, screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs as fearful passengers onboard clutch their belongings and gasp.

To understand how the same experience could lead to such different behaviors, one must begin to unpack what we know about the experience and regulation of emotional response. A recent paper from researchers at Ghent University in Belgium will help us in this endeavor by examining how a biological measure known as vagally mediated heart rate variability (HRV) interacts with parental psychopathology to affect child emotion regulation. HRV is an index of the beat-to-beat variability in heart rate. It is a physiological index of the health of the parasympathetic nervous system and it’s ability to flexibly adapt to environmental demands. You might be familiar with this system due to its famed role in the “rest and digest” response! When your body is under stress, a healthy and flexible parasympathetic nervous system relates to an increased ability to return to a normal state. This relates to a baseline ability to regulate one’s response to emotional stress. Someone with high HRV, or a healthy and flexible parasympathetic nervous system, should experience greater control over their emotional response to acute stressors as well as a faster return to a normal emotional state. In other words, someone with lower HRV may be more reactive, less emotionally stable, and may find that it takes them longer than others to calm themselves down (emotionally regulate).

While initial experience of emotion is the first factor in the pipeline of emotion regulation, other factors influence one’s ability to return to baseline. This paper additionally considers interoceptive sensitivity, which is sensitivity towards changes in one’s physiological state, or ability to accurately recognize how bodily conditions relate to emotional arousal. Individuals with high interoceptive sensitivity generally experience bigger emotional responses, but because of this accuracy in emotional recognition they are able to more effectively self-regulate. Family environment is also considered, as it has been shown to interact with physiological measures such as HRV to produce unexpected outcomes, such that high HRV (normally good for emotion regulation) when combined with maternal depressive symptoms actually results in worse outcomes for child emotion regulation. But these findings are varied and appear to be contingent on the developmental stage of the children, as HRV variability seems to have a sensitive period.

This paper sought to examine the effects that HRV, interoceptive sensitivity and parental factors have on the emotion regulation abilities of adolescents, and determine if HRV mediates the relationship between parental depression and anxiety symptoms and child emotion regulation ability.

As was expected, they found that higher HRV was associated with increased external emotion regulation strategies such as support seeking. Increased interoceptive sensitivity was related to decreased maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as rumination and self-devaluation, meaning that these kids spent less time engaging in these negative behaviors. Interestingly, interoceptive sensitivity was not related to HRV, possibly indicating two distinct factors shaping emotion regulation development. Examination of the family environment showed that higher levels of maternal anxiety and depression symptoms were related to higher child HRV and lower interoceptive sensitivity. These symptoms in the mother were also related to decreased adaptive emotion regulation strategies (e.g. support seeking) and increased maladaptive strategies (e.g. rumination). Furthermore, this study provided evidence that maternal symptoms effect external emotion regulation via its effect on high HRV.

Overall, this study illustrates the complex and multivariate nature of emotion regulation. It supports the notion that while a biological predisposition towards maladaptive (or adaptive) emotion regulation exists, environmental inputs such as the family can play an equally important role in exacerbating or alleviating these effects.

De Witte, N.A.J., Sütterlin, S., Braet, C., & Mueller, S.C. (2016). Getting to the heart of emotion regulation in youth: The role of interoceptive sensitivity, heart rate variability, and parental psychopathology. PLoS One, 11(10): e0164615, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0164615.