Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Emotional self-regulation
What is self-regulation, why is it important, and how can it be developed?
Have you ever wondered why some people handle highly charged emotional situations better than others? Have you ever walked away from a conflict and been disappointed at how you handled it? Or have you been amazed at how effortlessly a friend conjured an excited response to a gift that you know they were disappointed to receive? These are the sorts of questions that led to the research of emotional self-regulation. This chapter will define the concept and explore it in further detail through the use of appropriate psychological theories. It will then demonstrate why it is important and how this concept can be developed and improved.
A succinct definition of emotional self-regulation is a tricky task because it is such a broad concept. Looking at the word, it can be understood to denote a process of control, so for the purpose of this chapter, emotional self-regulation is the intrinsic and extrinsic processes exercised when responding to experiences, which produce both positive and negative emotions. These processes have to be flexible in order to know when to permit or delay a spontaneous reaction in a manner that is socially acceptable (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). In order to do so, self-regulation requires an individual to be able to monitor, evaluate and modify their emotional reactions at all times (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001).
Why is emotional regulation important
Emotional self-regulation can then be seen as just a single mechanism in the broader concepts of the emotional and social quotients of individuals (Clawson, 2012). That is recognising and managing your own feelings and then moving onto a more complex task of recognising and empathising with the feelings of others (Fonagy, Gergely & Jurist, 2003). High levels of self-regulation tend to relate to social competence as emotions are used effectively in social situations (Cole, Martin & Dennis, 2004).
This is a fundamental skill required to function in a society with standard quos; so it has to be developed (Beauregard, Levesque& Bourgouin, 2001). On the same note, it would come as no surprise, to many of you reading this; that this can be a difficult task. This would firstly, entail how to initiate, inhibit and modify the unobservable feelings and thoughts, one has (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). Followed closely by managing the observable body language and physiological responses (sweating, heart rate etc.) that result from this. In this regard, emotional regulation’s functional purpose is to know how to distribute attention to tasks including how to overpower undesirable behaviours (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
The body is constantly being bombarded with a myriad of stimuli that evoke emotional reactions of some kind, and so people have to constantly be controlling these reactions. If they were unsuccessful in achieving this; this would be considered as emotional dysregulation (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This includes emotional reactions that are deemed too extreme or mismatch a particular situation as stipulated by the morays and folkways of a particular culture. According to the work of Beauregard, Levesque and Bourgouin, (2001) there appears to be a positive correlation between emotional dysregulation and substance abuse, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The team of Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, and Gabrieli (2002) and Ochsner & Gross (2005) found complimentary results.
How can emotional regulation be developed and improved
The process modal model of emotion
A way to understand the regulation of emotion is through the use of the process modal model of emotion (Gross, 1998). This model suggests that emotions are generated in a four step process. Initially there is the situation. This can be a real or imagined event that has the capacity to illicit an emotional reaction. Second is attention, the individual has to give the situation their focus. Third is appraisal, the individual has to interpret their observations and perceptions of the event in order to evaluate it. Lastly, is their response; the coordinated product of subjective and cognitive processes on physiological systems and behaviour (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
This response in turn can cause changes to the original situation which creates a feedback loop. This cyclic model demonstrates the dynamic and continuous nature of emotional generation (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
What this model also suggests is that any of these four stages can be regulated through the use of two different categories of strategies. Antecedent-focused strategies that target the stages prior an emotional response and Response-focused strategies that target the actual emotional response (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
Antecedent strategies include situation selection, situation modification and attentional deployment.
This strategy involves either the option to avoid or approach the initial situation (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007). For example an individual may choose to not attend parties in order to reduce the likelihood of feeling anxious. Another example is that an individual may engage in exercise to increase the likelihood of experiencing the pleasant sensation of an endorphin rush. The difficulty is generally picking which situations to pursue or neglect. Vohs & Baumeister (2011) denote that people struggle to make accurate predictions about how they believe they would behave in upcoming events. Higgins (1987) proposes that a reason for this can be explained through self-discrepancy theory. This states that an individual sees themselves in three ways; the way they actually are, the way they want to be and the way they feel they should be as a result of social pressures. When predicting how one would behave in a future event we tend to make a prediction based on our ideal self, rather than our actual self (Higgins, 1987). This discrepancy reduces the efficiency of our self-regulatory processes (Higgins, 1987).
This strategy refers to steps that can be taken to alter the external elements of a situation to make it far more tolerable (Gross, 1998). For example, if parties make an individual socially anxious, bringing a supportive friend to accompany them to a venue might alleviate the stress. This is often used in parenting. Examples include; parents that intervene when they see toddlers becoming distressed over a challenging puzzles or facilitate play by creating a tea party.
Now we move to the first internal strategy that is used to regulate emotions. Gross and Thompson (2007) states that how an individual directs their focus in a situation can modify the emotional reaction. They continue by stating that this is learnt in infancy. For example a child tends to instinctively avoid focusing on aversive stimuli and redirects their focus on pleasant ones. This can be further aided if a parent attempts to guide the child’s focus in order to stimulate emotional management. The two prominent strategies are distraction and concentration.
This is when focus from the emotional situation is placed on other content (Gross, 2001). Such as the above example of the child. However distraction can also occur internally. Focusing on a previous memory or thought, which invokes feelings that contradict the current disagreeable emotional state is often used (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). This filtering process has supporting empirical evidence to acknowledge its role in reducing the intensity of emotional experiences (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). However it can work in reverse, such is with the case of actors and actresses who focus on a memory or thought to convincingly portray an emotion that isn’t generated by the immediate environment (Gross and Thompson, 2007).
Concentration is any strategy that focuses on the emotional impacts of the situation (Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). The most common tend to be rumination and worry.
This is the tendency to fixate on the symptoms of an emotional situation as well as the consequences these symptoms evoke (Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). It can be considered maladaptive because if one fixates on sad events, it exaggerates the length of time distress is felt. This is common with people suffering from major depression (Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
This is when one focuses on their thoughts of future situations, with the belief that there is potential for the outcome to be negative (Fonagy, Gergely & Jurist, 2003). This strategy tends to reduce the strength of the emotions generated from the anticipated event, as this can act as a form of mental preparation and problem solving (Fonagy, Gergely & Jurist, 2003). However this can cause low grade anxiety in the length of time prior. If the worrying is excessive it could denote an anxiety disorder (Fonagy, Gergely & Jurist, 2003).
Response –focused strategies consist of cognitive change and response modulation
Often the extent of the emotions a situation elicits is completely reliant on how an individual interprets the event. Cognitive change is therefore a process of restructuring how to evaluate an event or how to alter the demands it places on an individual. Three techniques commonly exercised are reappraisal, distancing and humour.
Cognitive reappraisal is the strategy in which one changes the way in which they understand the situation, which in turn modifies the emotional impact. This can be done externally, for example if you are home alone in the evening and you hear an unfamiliar animal call that frightens you, logical deduction of a list of animals in that area might change your initial thought of a “monster” to the Australian possum. An internal example is how you perceive the physiological changes in your body, such as an elevated heart rate before giving a speech. If you are aware that this does not decrease performance but is actually the beginning of an adrenaline rush, anxiety is likely to be relieved. Much like the case of a panic attack, most people aren’t aware of what is happening to their body which increases the intensity of the fear experienced. This strategy can be quite effective but requires much self-talk (Clawson, 2011). Self-talk is actively asking yourself how you feel and why that is the case (Clawson, 2011). It requires practice to shift this skill from controlled and conscious to automatic and unconscious (Clawson, 2011). This tends to have the most success with situations that have a moderate to low emotional intensity because it is not too overwhelming to reassess (Posner & Rothbart, 2000).
This can be seen as a specific type of reappraisal in which you look at an event as an objective third party. Often in situations of high emotional intensity the focus becomes myopic, this in turn reduces the ability to problem solve (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011). For example imagine you were in a room with your nose pressed against the wall, your only desire is to leave this room, however from this perspective you can see nothing but a brick wall. If you were to take three steps back however, suddenly an open door enters your peripherals. An exit is suddenly obvious and you feel both relieved and a little bit foolish. This strategy is particularly effective in self-reflection because you can replay and reconsider a past event and learn from it (Gross, 1998; Gross, 2001; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Vohs & Baumeister, 2011).
Humour can be considered another type of reappraisal and a coping strategy as it requires an individual to cognitively shift the intensity of a threatening situation in a manner that will reduce it (Martin, 2010).
These are the strategies that are implemented late in the emotional regulation process and generally target the behaviours that result from how an emotional stimulus has been registered (Gross & Thompson, 2007).
In an attempt to modify physiological responses the use of drugs and exercise is common. Drugs can produce, depressive or stimulated effects that in turn alter physiological behaviour such as muscle tension and heart rate (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Exercise can be used to reduce negative effects by stopping maladaptive strategies such as rumination for a period (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This of course is not an extensive list merely a few examples.
Another strategy is the suppression of expressions. This is a way of hiding true feelings by controlling your body language (Gross & Thompson, 2007). It is completely reliant on context as to whether it is adaptive or not (Gross & Thompson, 2007).
After this overview of strategies that can be implemented to improve or impinge on emotional self-regulation we will now focus on how it is developed.
During infancy a child is guided by physiological response systems (Posner & Rothbart, 2000). That is, their regulation of emotion is based on the avoidance of pain and the attraction of pleasure stimuli (Cole, Martin & Dennis, 2004; Ochsner & Gross, 2005). The process of learning adaptive control mechanisms is accumulated as an individual matures. The most paramount influence is that of the primary or secondary care givers. Developing competent self-regulation is considered to rely on social learning theory (Vaughanm, & Hogg, 2010). This suggests that in order to learn an individual has to observe an expert, attempt to imitate the expert and through a process of feedback and social guidance they will create guidelines for appropriate behaviours. With these standards in place a child can monitor themselves and evaluate if changes must occur to reach or maintain these standards (Vaughanm, & Hogg, 2010). This however does not mean that the behaviours the child is imitating will lead to social competence. This model just explains the origins of many behaviours.
Language is considered very important on the process of self-regulation (Cole, Martin & Dennis, 2004; Vaughanm, & Hogg, 2010). The tactic of parents asking a child to explain how they feel with words helps a child to develop the capacity to identify, explain, manage and reflect the emotions that they are generating. The questions the parent asks can be internalized so that the child begins to ask these questions themselves. This is the beginning stages of the process of self- talk that was mentioned earlier. Ideally that self-talk needs to become productive (Clawson, 2011). The first step is acknowledging that you want to have control over your emotions. This does not mean that you will always have the willpower to do so but it is an important step to accept responsibility for your emotions (Clawson, 2011). As you begin to recognize your emotions, a brief pause to challenge possible irrational links between your emotional response and the external event should be utilized (Clawson, 2011). Much like the development of any skill it requires much practice to perfect (Clawson, 2011).
It is very important not to undermine the context of a situation (Gross & Thompson, 2007). For example a behaviour might not always be considered an adaptive response such as crying by a toddler when they are given an instruction to do a task. However if it’s a means of getting attention that they are in danger it is considered adaptive (Gross & Thompson, 2007).
This chapter has identified emotional self-regulation as the process to control an individual’s emotional response to situations that present appropriate stimuli. Its importance was explained though the terms of its necessity to competently function in social situations and that a lack of this skill correlates positively to disorders such as anxiety and depression. Numerous strategies were presented to assist the process of emotional regulation and suggestions were made as to how it is developed.
- Emotional intelligence (Wikipedia)
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