Editor’s Note: This article is based on an excerpted portion of Dr. Stefan Hofmann’s 2016 book, Emotion in Therapy: From Science to Practice, which translates insights from emotion research into clinical applications for treating anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health issues.
- Regulating our emotions can help us gain more control over our emotional experience.
- We can use various strategies to regulate our emotions before or after an emotion arises.
- Emotion regulation strategies are neither good nor bad; they depend largely on context and other factors.
- Our emotions can also be regulated by others who may reinforce our coping mechanisms and help maintain emotional disorders.
The Nature of Emotions
We might often feel that we are at the mercy of our own emotions. But we do have a remarkable ability to control our emotional experience, or to regulate our behavior to accommodate the demands of situations in our lives. Let’s say that an upsetting event occurs in the workplace. In such an environment, where it is unsuitable to express anger, sadness, or another emotion, we are good at refusing to let an emotion take over. We are also good at avoiding situations that might trigger emotional responses or people we know will upset us. But what exactly does this process of controlling or regulating our emotions look like?
My research in emotion regulation has led me to the following conclusions: An emotion is a multidimensional experience characterized by different levels of arousal and degrees of pleasure and displeasure. Further, it is associated with subjective experiences, somatic (bodily) sensations, and motivational tendencies colored by contextual and cultural factors. And it can be regulated to some degree through intrapersonal and interpersonal processes.
Within Yourself: Intrapersonal Emotion Regulation
Gross (2002) proposed an intrapersonal emotion regulation model that suggests that emotions can be regulated at various stages in the process when a person generates a certain emotion, such as anger.
According to this model, strategies for regulating anger generally fall into two categories:
- Antecedent-focused strategies, which occur before the anger is fully activated. An example is reframing the incident that triggers the anger in a less distressing way before it occurs.
- Response-focused strategies, such as suppression, which is an attempt to alter the experience of emotions after response tendencies have been initiated. An example is pushing away or denying the anger that has already arisen.
In comparison studies, reframing the incident has led to more desirable outcomes than suppression. Gross (1998a, 1998b) found that study participants reported less distress when they were asked to reframe emotionally rousing pictures in a less distressing way. But when asked to suppress or hide their emotions while viewing emotional pictures, they experienced increased distress and psychophysiological arousal compared with people who did not attempt to suppress their feelings.
Adaptive or Maladaptive?
Importantly, there are no hard and fast rules in the realm of emotion: No one strategy should always be considered adaptive (a buffer of emotional stress) or maladaptive (contributing to the maintenance of the problem).
Adaptiveness depends on several factors, including context and the degree to which a strategy is used. The tendency to suppress an emotion is often considered maladaptive because it can increase physiological arousal. But in some contexts suppression is adaptive, and perhaps essential, to adjust to the demands of a situation. For example, it is highly adaptive to suppress anger or frustration in a situation where a person might be particularly vulnerable, or to suppress the urge to laugh at a funeral.
With Others: Interpersonal Emotion Regulation
Regulating emotions can often involve other people as well as the context or situation (Hofmann, 2014), and it can take different forms. But four distinct patterns have emerged in the research (Hofmann et al., 2016):
- Enhancing positive affect: a tendency to seek out others to increase feelings of happiness and joy.
- Perspective taking: using others to remind you not to worry, and that others have it worse off than you do
- Soothing: seeking out others for comfort and sympathy.
- Social modeling: looking to see how others might cope with a given situation.
We use many of these strategies all the time. When we’re having a tough day, we can feel consoled by a friend who tells us about a day that sounds even more distressing than the one we’re experiencing.
But like intrapersonal strategies, interpersonal strategies can be maladaptive or adaptive. Frequent or habitual use of these strategies can ultimately reduce your sense of control over your own emotional experience. For example, a person may rely on others’ consolations to help put their own life in perspective. As with all emotion regulation strategies, adaptiveness largely depends on context.
Because interpersonal emotion regulation strategies are directly related to social standards and expectations, researchers will need to develop assessment instruments that consider the influence of cultural contexts. There is also exciting work to be done exploring how interpersonal and intrapersonal emotion regulation strategies interact.
Gross, J. J. (1998a). Antecedentand response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 224– 237.
Gross, J. J. (1998b). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271– 299.
Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39, 281–91.
Hofmann, S. G. (2014). Interpersonal emotion regulation model of mood and anxiety disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38, 483-492.
Hofmann, S. G. (2016). Emotion in therapy: From science to practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Hofmann, S. G., Carpenter, J. K., & Curtiss, J. (2016). Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (IERQ): Scale development and psychometric characteristics. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 40, 341-356.