January 20, 2016

How to Control Your Emotions

New Year 2016

Are you a "think on the bright side" person, who always has a positive outlook? Or do you sometimes find it hard to control what you feel and how you express those feelings? Tammy English, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Emotion and Relationships Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, studies emotion regulation. Here she discusses some common successful strategies for managing emotions and working toward long-term happiness.

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Full transcript

Claire Navarro: Hello, and thanks for tuning into Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Navarro. It’s January, and many of us are still trying to stick with our New Year’s resolutions for the year ahead. If you listened to our podcast from last week, you’ve already heard some tips for building up your will power to help with common resolutions like avoiding unhealthy food or keeping off of social media while you’re at work. But what about emotional goals? For many of us, the New Year is a time to focus on improving our personal relationships or to try to start feeling less stress and anxiety and more happiness overall. In order to work on these types of goals, it can be helpful to feel like you have some control over your emotions. Psychologists call this emotion regulation.

Tammy English: Emotion regulation is just all of the many things that we do to try to control or manage the things we are feeling and how we’re expressing what we’re feeling to other people.

CN: That’s Tammy English. She directs the Emotion and Relationships Laboratory here at Washington University in St. Louis. English studies emotions regulation, and in today’s podcast, she’s going to share what some psychologists know about it and how different methods can effect long-term happiness. First off, though, I asked her when and why people try to regulate their emotions at all.

TE: Typically, when people are regulating their emotions, they are trying to either down-regulate or reduce their experience or expression of negative emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety or try to increase or enhance their experience of positive emotions like happiness or excitement.

CN: There are situations, however, when you would want to increase negative emotions, like anger. Let’s say you are in a really competitive situation and you want to amp yourself up. And there are also situations in which you would want to downplay positive emotions.

TE: You know, you get really giddy when you are at a sad movie, and you don’t want to ruin it for those around you; for some reason, something just seems particularly funny to you. Or you doing really well on an exam, but your roommate has just failed; it wouldn’t be really nice to rub it in their face by celebrating how excited you are.

CN: So all of these things are example of regulating your emotions, and there are a lot of ways that people go about doing this. We’re going to mainly talk about two. The first strategy is called cognitive reappraisal. Think of this as the “think on the bright side” option.

TE: Cognitive reappraisal is basically when we’re just trying to change the way we are thinking about something that is causing us to feel in a way we don’t want to feel. So if you have an exam coming up that you are feeling really anxious about, instead of thinking about how this test has such a huge impact on your grade, you may think how this is just one of many classes that I’m taking or one of many assignments that we have throughout the semester; even if I don’t do as well as I would ideally like to do, I’m not going to be failing out of school or something like that.

CN: Reframing situations in this way can help stop negative emotions before they start, or at least before they start to feel overwhelming. There are tons of situations, both professional and personal, in which this is a really useful skill to have. In the test example, downplaying the importance of the exam might help a person focus better while studying instead of being so worried that they can’t even think straight. And in addition to being helpful in these types of specific moments, cognitive reappraisal has long-term benefits.

TE: Cognitive reappraisal really links up well to work that has been done on happiness in general and what are the kinds of things that are typically useful for increasing happiness in the long-term. In general, it seems the best thing you can do is really try to change your everyday habits and practices in such a way that you are trying to cultivate gratitude and be more appreciative of things around you. That includes doing things like reappraising when someone is doing something that would typically elicit anger or sadness or annoyance or anxiety.

CN: But of course, in some situations it is just not possible to think on the bright side. Emotions like sadness, anger, and frustration do happen and for good reasons. In these situations, people sometimes choose to regulate their emotions through a different method, one psychologists call expressive suppression. Think of this as the “poker face” option.

TE: Expressive suppression is another commonly used emotion regulation strategy that basically is just trying to hide or inhibit an emotion that you are experiencing.

CN: Like cognitive reappraisal, in some situations this is an important skill to have. Think about if you are at work, and you are really annoyed by some decision or comment your boss just made. In that case, it might be in your best interest to hide your feelings. But unlike cognitive reappraisal, suppression doesn’t actually help change the way you feel. You are still angry at your boss; you are just not showing it. So even though this is helpful in some situations, it may not be the best thing to do all the time. English has studied what happens when people regularly suppress their emotions.

TE: What we have found is that people who are habitually using suppression or trying to hide their experience of emotion have less close and less satisfying relationships with other people, both in terms of their friendships and in terms of their romantic relationships. Some of the work that I was doing is try to look at why exactly is that.

CN: Maybe it is just difficult to feel close to someone who always seems to have their poker face on, who never seems to have, or at least show, their emotions. Or maybe something else is going on. Maybe it has more to do with the person who is actually suppressing his or her emotions, how they feel underneath the mask.

TE: The idea that I have tested in some of my work is that when we’re suppressing our emotions, the fact that what we’re experiencing does not match what we’re expressing, does that lead us to then feel inauthentic or not genuine in our actions with other people? Is that what actually is causing problems? So far, there is a lot of support for that idea suggesting that it’s not just the fact that we are not expressing emotions, it’s the fact that what we are expressing isn’t mating what we’re feeling on the inside. As a result, we feel like we are not being our true selves in our interactions with other people, and we’re feeling that other people do not fully understand what we’re thinking and feeling.

CN: With everything that we have heard so far with emotion regulations, it may be easy to think, “OK, so cognitive reappraisal (or thinking on the bright side) is good for relationships and for overall happiness.” Meanwhile, expressive suppression (or wearing your poker face) is bad for relationships and overall happiness. But it’s really not that simple.

TE: Part of this is really learning more about yourself, so we need to figure out what are your own personal emotional goals. How is it that you would ideally like to be feeling? What are your emotional triggers? What are the things that make you feel the ways that you want to feel and that you don’t want to feel. Then, figuring out what are the strategies that work well for you. Even though cognitive reappraisal is something that has typically been found to be really effective and adaptive for people to use, maybe for you, it’s just really hard to be reframing things, and instead you need to focus more on trying to distract yourself or just learning what are the things that you can do that are going to make you happier: going on a run or spending time having coffee with a friend or things like that.

CN: When in doubt, look for good examples of emotion regulation. Perhaps your parents or grandparents, or really anyone who is older than you are. Part of English’s research on emotion regulation involves older adults, and she has found in many cases, they are really good at this.

TE: This is something that’s really surprising for a lot of people, so it is often called the paradox aging: the fact that older adults on the one hand are experiencing all this cognitive decline and are experiencing the lose of friends, health problems—there’s kind of a lot of objectively negative things that come along with getting older—but at the same time, they are also showing maintained or even enhanced emotional well-being. So how can that be?

CN: Part of it seems to be that older adults have figured out what and who makes them truly happy. Overall, they choose to spend more of their time with close friends and family and less time with acquaintances. They also just have more practice.

TE: It seems that they really have learned from these experiences that they have had over time regulating their own emotions and seeing other people regulate their emotions to figure out what their emotional triggers really are. They’re also really skilled at navigating social interactions. Their good at trying to avoid arguments in general, avoiding getting themselves in situations where they’re feeling things that they wouldn’t want to be feeling, and not having so many pressures on them to be having to regulate their emotions after the fact.

CN: So take heart in the knowledge that for many of us, we become happier and perhaps even wiser as we age. In the meantime, especially in the year ahead, simply being aware of these strategies is a great place to start.

TE: In general, I think that in terms of thinking about what does it mean to have healthy emotion regulation, I think that it is more than just avoiding strategies like suppression all of the time. It seems like it has more to do with being flexible in the way that you are regulating your emotions, knowing what strategy to use in your emotion regulation toolbox in which times, and mapping the appropriate strategies to the appropriate contexts or situations. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot yet about what the perfect matches are or whether or not they are the same for everyone. That is something we are working on more now.

CN: Many thanks to Tammy English for joining Hold That Thought. For many more ideas to explore, please visit us at holdthatthought.wustl.edu. You can also subscribe to our weekly podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud or keep up with the latest on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening.