Principles of Emotional Regulation

More than three thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote: “To feel our feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose, and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount—and the best amount is, of course, the mark of virtue.”

From the irritation of a slow internet connection to the anxiety we feel before a job interview, every day brings all sorts of hurdles that can affect our productivity, relationships, and well-being. How we manage our emotions in the face of these challenges can have an outsized impact on our lives.

How we Process Emotions

Imagine waking up to upsetting news reports such as the death of your favorite celebrity or the aftermath of an earthquake. You might feel anxious, scared, sad, powerless. Why do external events we aren’t involved in and have no control over affect our emotions so strongly?

Emotions are felt responses that help us cope with everyday problems. They are like graphs of data that provide valuable insights into what feels right and what doesn’t. Feelings of anger may indicate the need to address an injustice, while feelings of satisfaction after completing a project may signal a potential area for growth.

However, as useful as emotions are in our lives, they aren’t always helpful. They can be overwhelming or misplaced, arriving at the most inconvenient times—like the urge to laugh during serious conversations. This is why emotional regulation is such a crucial skill, as it enables us to appropriately manage our emotions in response to various situations.

Emotional Regulation Banner

Psychologist James Gross developed a model of emotional regulation known as the emotion-generative process. Gross believes understanding how emotions are generated is essential for regulating them effectively.

His 4-stage model outlines a series of processes that lead to the onset of an emotion:

  • Situation: Everything begins with identifying a situation, either external or internal, that can trigger an emotional response. An example situation could be a public speaking event where you’d have to present in front of a large audience.
  • Attention: The focus you give to a situation, and the direction of said focus can significantly impact your emotional response. For example, paying attention to the size of the audience, the importance of the presentation and your competence can amplify your stress and anxiety.
  • Appraisal/Evaluation: Actively thinking about the situation, such as how the presentation contributes to your self-concept and value, can determine the emotional response you will likely elicit.
  • Response: Based on your evaluation, an emotional response will be generated. Say you think “This is a critical moment, I might not perform well enough.” The response can include feeling anxious, experiencing a racing heart, and avoiding eye contact.

These processes illustrate the journey of emotions from an initial trigger to a full response, providing potential points of intervention to alter your emotional outcome. By understanding this model, you can intervene at each stage of the emotion-generative process to better regulate your emotional experience.

Strategies for Emotional Regulation

There are two primary types of emotional regulation strategies: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression.

• Cognitive reappraisal is an antecedent-focused strategy, meaning it takes place earlier in the emotion-generative process before the emotion is fully formed. It involves changing your thoughts about a situation to alter its emotional impact. For instance, viewing a stressful exam as an opportunity to learn rather than a threat could reduce your anxiety and increase your performance.

Expressive suppression is a response-focused strategy used once the emotion is underway. It involves actively decreasing the behavioral signs and internal experiences caused by the emotion. In a professional setting that requires composure, suppressing your frustration could enhance your sense of competence.

Contrary to popular belief, suppressing your emotions is not always harmful, and reframing your thoughts is not universally beneficial. Research shows that while suppressing emotions can decrease memory of negative events and improve mental health, reframing emotions through cognitive reappraisal could cause you to stay in situations that require proactive change.

For instance, an employee may refuse to accept constructive feedback and think “My boss is just being picky, I’m doing my best.” This use of reappraisal can cause them to ignore valuable feedback that would support their professional growth.

How to Regulate your Emotions

Cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression are both helpful in regulating your emotions. However, the real challenge lies in knowing when, and how to use them to influence your emotional responses.

To regulate your emotions, Gross suggests making interventions at each stage of the emotion-generative process. Here’s how to apply these strategies:

1. Choose the situation. Not all situations in our lives are under our control, but often, we have the choice to avoid the triggers that lead to unwanted emotions. For example, instead of spending the evening alone and potentially doom scrolling on your phone, you could choose to hang out with a friend.

2. Modify the situation. When you find yourself in a not-so-ideal scenario, remember that you have the power to alter how it unfolds. Say you plan to meet your friend—opt for a lively and activity-focused setting where you’re less likely to be tempted to check your phone. This simple decision can significantly influence your emotional experience.

3. Direct your attention. You can control where your attention goes. Actively manage it to improve your emotional state. In the context of spending time with a friend, engage fully in the conversations and activities. Asking questions and listening attentively could keep you from scrolling through social media and help maintain a positive mood.

4. Reframe your thoughts. Sometimes, shifting your perspective on a situation can diffuse negative emotions. If you feel FOMO (fear of missing out) because you’re not up-to-date with social media, remind yourself of the benefits of in-person interaction. Building stronger, real-life connections can be more fulfilling and emotionally healthy than getting updates online.

5. Control your responses. Finally, the way you respond in any situation can either amplify or reduce its emotional intensity. Intentionally choose to manage your outward behaviors and expressions. For instance, during a heated conversation with your partner, you could take a few deep breaths and consciously lower your voice to keep the discussion calm. This not only helps regulate your current emotions but also sets a positive pattern for future interactions.

Mastering the skill of emotion regulation is an ongoing practice of self-awareness and mindful choices. Start with small, intentional changes and observe how these practices transform your emotions over time.

Integrating these strategies into your daily life will enhance your emotional resilience and foster more meaningful relationships with yourself and others. By consciously applying interventions at different stages of the emotion-generative process, you can better control your internal and external emotional responses.

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