Regulating Emotions to Increase Wellbeing
Updated: May 20, 2020
I recently celebrated an unanticipated anniversary: My tenth year as a psychological scientist. My expertise is in understanding human emotions and how to best manage them in everyday life, and I am proud of my scholarly accomplishments. I’ve published five manuscripts and have four being reviewed for publication in scholarly journals.
However, I have neglected to make my findings accessible to the most important audience: Those of you searching for meaningful, realistic ways of increasing wellbeing.
This article is the first in a series aimed to promote understanding of helpful and unhelpful ways to manage emotions, with the overarching goal being to provide simple but impactful methods for increasing wellbeing.
As awareness of mental health continues to grow, it’s safe to assume most of us have heard the term “coping skills,” such as mood tracking and self-soothing. In contrast, I am usually met with bewilderment when I mention “emotion regulation” during therapy or conversations with peers.
While emotion regulation is associated with coping skills, there are meaningful differences between the two.
Coping skills are thought of as learned, concrete strategies to reduce distress in a specific situation, while emotion regulation refers to one’s natural tendency to influence the experience and expression of their emotions across a variety of situations (Gross; 1988; 2007).
In other words, what is your style when it comes to interpreting the meaning of emotionally charged situations? How does this meaning contribute to how you respond to such a situation?
For example, let’s assume you spent hours on a report and felt confident in your work. When you turned it in to your boss, you received harsh, negative feedback regarding your performance.
You feel angry and undervalued, and in turn you spend the rest of the day overthinking your bosses reaction. Overthinking the situation is your attempt to understand why she couldn’t see how hard you worked on the report. You also may have a constant worry that your perceived poor performance could lead to termination.
While this reaction may seem ordinary and universal, what we are actually doing is pouring fuel on the fire. Your anxiety and anger increase each time you engage in thoughts like those described above. Every time you think about how unfairly you were treated, your anger increases. When you turn your attention towards worrying about losing your job, you feel even more anxious.
This type of emotion regulation is referred to as rumination (Bushman, 2002; Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990). Unsurprisingly, rumination often results in depression, anxiety, and an overall lack of wellbeing.
Now, let’s assume you’re faced with the same situation: Your boss berates your performance, and naturally you feel disappointed in yourself and worry about your job security. However, you have a different approach to thinking about stressful situations and managing their emotional impact.
You're upset, but it's not long before you recall past, similar situations— and although they were painful, they did not interfere with your career goals. You remember how many of your friends and colleagues have experienced similar situations, and you realize you are not alone in your feelings of rejection and inadequacy.
This style of emotion regulation is broadly referred to as reappraisal and is associated with a positive view of self, others, and the world (Gross & James, 2007; Haner & Rude, 2015).
Rumination and reappraisal are somewhat opposite of one another, and both are common ways of regulating emotions with important implications for wellbeing— but many other helpful and unhelpful ways of managing emotions are worthy of discussion.
The next article in the series will focus on other common methods for regulating emotions and also help you to identify your style. Most importantly, I’ll talk about my findings regarding the effects certain emotion regulation styles have on our lives, and I’ll introduce simple methods for strengthening your ability to manage your emotions in healthy ways (Haner & Rude, 2015; Miller, Rude, & Haner, 2015).
Dr. Morgynn Haner is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin’s counseling psychology doctoral program. She is a psychotherapist in private practice and continues to research emotion regulation.