Emotion Regulation of Others and Self

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New to the study of Emotion Regulation

Posted on May 23, 2012 by testadmin

I’ve only just started working in the area of Emotion Regulation (ER) and I am finding it quite fascinating.  From a personal, rather than academic viewpoint, one of the interesting things I have found about starting in this area is that it encourages me to think more closely about my own emotions, perhaps even raising my emotional intelligence IQ by a point or two.
For example, a little while ago on a Friday evening I was driving from Sheffield to Kent, a journey of approximately 200 miles, in my faithful old ford escort. Unfortunately, at least on this particular journey, there was to be somewhat more emphasis on the old rather than the faithful. In fairness the car got me all the way down the M1, probably about 150 miles into the journey and onto the M25. However once on the M25 I noticed the battery light was on indicting the battery was no longer charging. According to my car manual, what you are supposed to do is turn off any non-essential electrical items and go straight to the nearest garage. However, I had no idea where the nearest garage was and was pretty sure that most of them would be shut at that time on a Friday evening. Plus I blithely assumed that as I’d only just noticed the light was on it could only just have happened and therefore I’d make it to my destination. So to turning off the non-essential electrics, unfortunately it was dark so I thought it unwise to classify the headlights as non-essential and as it was raining heavily ditto the windscreen wipers. But off went the heating and even the radio and I carried on confident I would make it.
That confidence lasted until I realised that my electric steering was no longer working and I was going only on manual. Nevertheless, I still had faith I could make it. The faith lasted until I had almost reached the Blackwall tunnel, at which point I realised that my headlights didn’t appear to be lighting up much of the road anymore and the engine seemed to be running rough enough to bounce its way through the bonnet. Faith having thus abandoned me I decided it probably wasn’t a great idea to try and make it through the tunnel.  For those of you who don’t know the Blackwall tunnel’s one of the main Thames crossing points in the east of London and if you break down in there you probably qualify to get a line in the traffic update news all to yourself.  What I was left with was hope. That is I hoped I could turn around and limp back to where my sister lived about 8 miles from the tunnel. The journey had been somewhat stressful ever since I first noticed the battery light, this had been getting worse as things continued to go wrong and was tipping into the red zone in the last few miles, particularly when I realised that the car engine temperature was doing the same thing and that it wasn’t mist coming off of the bonnet but steam coming out of it. But the car finally belly flopped to a halt in front of my sister’s house and I turned the engine off. I had no idea if she was there or away for the weekend but I didn’t really care, it was just such a relief to not be driving the car anymore.
So I’d been through a variety of emotions, including something close to panic towards the end when I spent a lot of energy futilely yelling at vehicles to get out of my way .... please .... and finishing with massive relief. Of course the next day when I’d managed to get my car to a garage and they started telling me how much it would cost I didn’t feel relieved. What I felt was both angry and despondent, my car had broken down, it was going to cost me a lot of money and it had disrupted all my plans, why did these things keep happening to me? In short I felt pretty bad. However, my reading about ER made me think about what was it that was making me feel so bad. What occurred to me was that while it was unfortunate I had to break down at all, I could have broken down anywhere on my journey, leaving me stranded on some motorway with all the extra expense and inconvenience that would have meant. Instead I made it to my sister’s, had something to eat, a decent night’s rest, we charged up the battery again and got me to a garage a couple of miles away that my that brother in law knew because he takes his car there. Looked on in that light it could have worked out a whole lot worse and that made me feel rather better and very likely improved my mood and ability to get on with things for the entire weekend.
That by the way is an ER strategy called reappraisal and those of you who follow these blogs will probably recognise it from a previous entry by Spyros Christou-Champi called “Facing emotional situations: Should we camouflage or rethink?”. In which Spyros talks about a study comparing suppression with reappraisal.
The thing is there appears to be a large number of ER strategies. A study in 1999 (Parkinson and Totterdell, 1999) on a classification of self-regulation strategies identified 162 for improving mood. As part of another study (Niven, Totterdell and Holman 2009) EROS colleagues generated a body of 378 distinct ER strategies using self-report questionnaires and diaries completed by student and working samples. Admittedly this second study was on strategies for the regulation of other people’s emotions rather than one’s own, but taking both studies together it gives some idea of the wide variety available. However, all the strategies are not equal, going back to Spyros’ blog, reappraisal comes out rather better than suppression and indeed has been shown to be better than the other strategy I mentioned using during the drive. When I was yelling at other drivers to get out of my way that’s a form of acting out, which also doesn’t seem to be so effective, so I obviously still have lots of room for improvement.
From just this practical point of view of what works well for people, when it works best and why, there is a great deal to be learnt in the study of ER and it is one of the things that makes it an absorbing area in which to work. I mean, 378 strategies, that is more than enough for a car breakdown every day of the year.

Niven, K., Totterdell, P., & Holman, D. (2009). A classification of controlled interpersonal affect regulation strategies. Emotion, 9, 498-509.
Parkinson, B., & Totterdell, P. (1999).  Classifying affect regulation strategies.  Cognition and Emotion, 13, 277-303.

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