Emotion Regulation of Others and Self

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Facing emotional situations: Should we camouflage or rethink?

Posted on Jul 21, 2011 by Karen Niven

Spyros Christou-Champi from the EROS Clinical Neuroscience group in Sheffield asks what strategy is best for regulating our own emotions…

All of the basic emotions like happiness, anger, sadness, fear, disgust and surprise are universally recognized. This is indicative of the adaptive importance of emotions. Emotions tend to arise when an attended situation is viewed as important for our goals. Emotions are not unitary concepts. Instead they represent multi-dimensional phenomena that include physiological, behavioural and subjective experiential responses arising through the ongoing assessment of situation specific cues.

Different emotions lead to different kinds of behaviours. For example, our willingness to approach a situation may be fostered by happiness. On the contrary, disgust and fear can make us withdraw from the situation that evoked these emotions. In essence, emotions allow quick evaluations of the personal significance of a particular event. Thereby, emotions motivate us to behave in ways that maintain favourable and deal with unfavourable outcomes. For example, physiological changes, like heart rate increases, accompanying fear occurring when experiencing imminent threat, prepare us to behave in ways that allow us to avoid physical injuries.

Emotions can also have a detrimental effect on our well being and health. For example, waiting in a long, slow moving queue to get a coffee is frustrating, especially if you are in a hurry. Such annoyance can easily turn into anger especially when the barista stops every couple of seconds to gossip with colleagues. Despite our anger, however, most people avoid making angry comments abiding by social norms and regulating their emotional expression. After all, regulated social interactions demanding emotion regulation (ER) are at the centre of any definition of “society”.

An ER strategy often used by individuals seeking to hide their emotions from other people is suppression. Suppression is effective in helping us hide the way we feel. For example, people who were instructed to suppress their emotionally expressive behaviour while watching a disgusting film showed a significant decrease in facial movements, facial touching, blinks and body movements as compared with people that were not ask to suppress their behaviour (Gross & Levenson, 1993).

However, suppressing our expressive behaviour does not necessarily mean that we will regulate our experienced emotions. A study conducted by our laboratory asked people to suppress their expressive behaviour while watching short film clips designed to induce feelings of disgust. Our results showed that people were able to suppress their expressive behaviour but at the same time these people reported feeling disgusted despite regulating their emotionally expressive behaviour. This showed that people can suppress their emotionally expressive behaviour but this does not necessarily mean that they will feel better.

The inability of expressive suppression to regulate people’s emotions may account for the relationship between this particular strategy and physiological cost. For example people who were asked to suppress their expressive behaviour while watching disgusting film clips showed a significant increase in sympathetic activation (i.e. bodily, autonomic arousal, so named as it acts “in sympathy” with the emotions) and related cardiovascular activity (Gross & Levenson, 1993). Gross & Levenson (1997) extended this finding to positive emotions like amusement. These results suggest that suppression leads to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is thought to respond to increased demands for action. Initially this seems paradoxical, given that suppression inhibits action. However, it makes sense if we take into account the fact that suppression does not regulate the induced emotion leaving us in a motivational state, still seeking an appropriate response.

Reappraisal seems to be a better strategy in helping us modify our emotions. Reappraisal can help us change the way in which we appraise the situation we are facing. For example, if we feel disgusted when watching a surgical procedure we could reappraise the situation by thinking that this procedure will make the person undergoing surgery healthier. This in turn assists us in redefining the emotional significance of the situation we are in. Reappraisal can help us alter our emotions while avoiding the physiological cost associated with suppression. Similar to suppression, reappraisal is able to decrease emotionally expressive behaviour. However, and contrary to suppression, reappraisal leads to decreases in experienced emotion as well (Gross, 1998). Besides that, reappraisal can help us regulate both our emotions and emotionally expressive behaviour while avoiding increased activity of the SNS and associated heart rate reactivity that accompany suppression or even the lack of use of any ER strategy (Williams, Bargh, Nocera, & Gray, 2009).

The difference in the physiological consequences following suppression and reappraisal is supported by neuroscientific data linking these ER strategies with neural activity (Goldin, McRae, Ramel & Gross, 2008). For example, the use of reappraisal results in early activity in brain areas associated with the cognitive control of emotions (orbitofrontal cortex and dorso and ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex). This early activity (between 0 to 4.5 seconds) results in a decrease in late activation (between 10.5 to 15 seconds) in brain areas associated with emotions (amygdala and insula). The insula is also part of the central autonomic network (Appelhans & Luecken, 2006). This neural network adjusts the physiological arousal of the heart. Thus related decreases in the activity of the insula following reappraisal can be linked to the observed decrease in heart reactivity relating to emotional stimulation. The opposite is true for suppression. Suppression is not able to modulate the activity in emotion sensitive brain regions. Instead, it results in concurrent activity in brain areas implicated in emotional control and areas sensitive to emotional stimulation (e.g. the insula).

Looking back to the original question, “which ER strategy should we use?”, it seems that it might be better for us to try and rethink the situation we are facing in an effort to redefine its emotional significance. This will help us regulate both our expressive behaviour and emotions while avoiding heart rate reactivity.

Spyros Christou-Champi

Appelhans, B. M., & Luecken, L. J. (2006). Heart rate variability as an index of regulated emotional responding. Review of general psychology, 10, 229-240
Goldin, P. R., McRae, K., Ramel, W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). The neural bases of emotion regulation: Reappraisal and suppression of negative emotions. Biological psychiatry, 63, 577-586.
Gross, J., & Levenson, R. W. (1993). Emotional suppression: Physiology, self-report, and expressive behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 970-986.
Gross, J., & Levenson, R. W. (1997). Hiding Feelings: the acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 95-103.
Williams, L. E., Bargh, J. A., Nocera, C. C., & Gray, J. R. (2009). The unconscious regulation of emotion: Nonconscious reappraisal goals modulate emotional reactivity. Emotion, 6, 847-854.

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