Emotional regulation Part II: research summary

Ab­stract: Emo­tional reg­u­la­tion is a topic cur­rently be­ing stud­ied in the field of psy­chol­ogy. Five differ­ent types of emo­tional reg­u­la­tion strate­gies have been iden­ti­fied, dis­t­in­guished by the stage of the emo­tion-re­sponse pro­cess in which they oc­cur. To dras­ti­cally sim­plify, this strate­gies are: situ­a­tion se­lec­tion, situ­a­tion mod­ifi­ca­tion, de­ploy­ment of at­ten­tion, changes in cog­ni­tion, and mod­u­la­tion of re­sponses.


This is a fol­low-up to my pre­vi­ous post about my prob­lem with emo­tional reg­u­la­tion. This is also my first out­side-of-the-class­room foray into schol­ar­ship, luke­prog style. Mainly what I found is that it’s sur­pris­ingly time-con­sum­ing and frus­trat­ing. I suffered a lot of akra­sia, com­pared to my usual, while writ­ing this post–mainly be­cause I kept think­ing ‘oh my god, and then I have to cite my sources!’ This may be an area where I need more prac­tice...

What is emo­tion any­way?

Ap­par­ently there are quite a lot of com­pet­ing defi­ni­tions for ‘emo­tion’. Maybe this shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing–the con­cept of emo­tion seem sim­ple be­cause most of the pro­cess­ing hap­pens be­low con­scious aware­ness, but emo­tions are as com­plex as the brains that cre­ate them.

The defi­ni­tion that most re­search in emo­tional reg­u­la­tion uses is the ‘re­sponse ten­dency’ defi­ni­tion: emo­tions are adap­tive be­hav­ioral and/​or phys­iolog­i­cal re­sponses, and they hap­pen when the or­ganism is put in evolu­tion­ar­ily sig­nifi­cant situ­a­tions. The in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience of emo­tion may lead to a par­tic­u­lar be­havi­our, but may not: emo­tion is a feed­back mechanism that leads to var­i­ous be­havi­ours, rather than the di­rect cause of be­havi­our. Re­cent re­search has cov­ered the spe­cific pur­poses that emo­tions ac­com­plish. They can fa­cil­i­tate de­ci­sion-mak­ing, pre­pare the in­di­vi­d­ual for a fast re­sponse to a given situ­a­tion, in­form on the match be­tween or­ganism and en­vi­ron­ment, and serve a so­cial func­tion; in gen­eral, they al­low for learn­ing. Emo­tional re­sponses are not set in stone, and can be mod­u­lated on the way to tak­ing their fi­nal shape. (Gross, 1988).

What does this mean for me, per­son­ally? One, emo­tions ex­ist for a rea­son. They are adap­tive, and at­tempt­ing to turn mine off en­tirely or pre­vent them from af­fect­ing my de­ci­sions would likely not be adap­tive. Two, emo­tions are trig­gered by ‘evolu­tion­ary sig­nifi­cant’ situ­a­tions. To take a wild guess on what that might mean, be­ing in a situ­a­tion that in­volved com­pe­ti­tion against peo­ple who were much, much bet­ter than you might have had se­vere con­se­quences in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment...and even if not, for most of hu­man his­tory sur­vival was more im­por­tant than fun, and that would mean fo­cus­ing on ac­tivi­ties where you were likely to suc­ceed, rather than those you liked. My emo­tional re­sponse may be try­ing to in­form me that the match be­tween my or­ganism and the en­vi­ron­ment is less than ideal–or would have been if I were liv­ing 50 000 years ago.

Emo­tional Regulation

Ac­cord­ing to the peo­ple who study it, emo­tional reg­u­la­tion is what hap­pens when peo­ple try to in­crease, de­crease, or main­tain their emo­tions, whether pos­i­tive or nega­tive. (For once, this seems like a pretty straight­for­ward defi­ni­tion.) Peo­ple may try to change the kind of emo­tions they have, when they have them, and how they ex­pe­rience and ex­press them.

“The available ev­i­dence does not sup­port the ex­is­tence of dis­crete emo­tional states. In­stead, emo­tional re­spond­ing ap­pears to be or­ga­nized in terms of a few fun­da­men­tal di­men­sions, in­clud­ing valence, arousal, and ap­proach-avoidance. The in­fluence of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion on peo­ple’s emo­tional states is there­fore likely to be similarly di­men­sional. In other words, “emo­tion reg­u­la­tion may not be so much con­cerned with get­ting peo­ple in or out of dis­crete emo­tional states like anger, sad­ness, or joy. Rather, emo­tion reg­u­la­tion may change peo­ple’s emo­tional states along di­men­sions such as valence, arousal, and ap­proach-avoidance.” (Koole, 2009).

The study of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion isn’t new. Freud stud­ied it in the form of ego defenses, which he saw as non-con­scious pro­cesses that could, de­pend­ing on the spe­cific method used, re­sult in re­al­ity dis­tor­tion, ex­cess en­ergy con­sump­tion, and un­nec­es­sary non-grat­ifi­ca­tion–to him, these forms of emo­tional reg­u­la­tion were mal­adap­tive. (Gross, 1998).

More re­cently the study of cop­ing has fo­cused on emo­tional reg­u­la­tion from the point of view of con­scious, de­liber­ate, and adap­tive pro­cesses. Th­ese can be based on fix­ing the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem, i.e. prob­lem-fo­cused cop­ing, or on re­duc­ing the nega­tive emo­tions with­out chang­ing the phys­i­cal re­al­ity, i.e. emo­tion-fo­cused cop­ing. In gen­eral, emo­tion-fo­cused cop­ing is less effec­tive and more likely to be as­so­ci­ated with psy­cholog­i­cal dis­tress. (Wat­son & Sinha, 2008). Ac­cord­ing to more re­cent re­search, emo­tional reg­u­la­tion pro­cesses “may be au­to­matic or con­trol­led, con­scious or un­con­scious, and may have their effects at one or more points in the emo­tion gen­er­a­tive pro­cess.” (Gross, 1998).

An in­di­vi­d­ual’s skill at emo­tional reg­u­la­tion must also be dis­t­in­guished from their in­nate emo­tional sen­si­tivity, which af­fects how much and how quickly they re­spond to an emo­tion-caus­ing stim­u­lus. In the­ory, Per­son A could be very sen­si­tive, and ex­pe­rience a swift rush of nega­tive emo­tions in re­sponse to an up­set­ting stim­u­lus, but still be able to down-reg­u­late the feel­ings af­ter­wards, whereas Per­son B re­sponds less quickly and steeply but lacks the skill to redi­rect the emo­tions they do ex­pe­rience. And whereas emo­tional sen­si­tivity cor­re­lates with tem­per­a­ment differ­ences in in­fants, and seems to de­velop in­de­pen­dently of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­fluences, skill in emo­tional reg­u­la­tion de­vel­ops and changes based on the qual­ity of chil­dren’s so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, and can con­tinue to im­prove through­out life. (Koole, 2009).

Differ­ent strate­gies of emo­tional reg­u­la­tion can be clas­sified by whether they are con­sciously con­trol­led or au­to­matic–how­ever, since con­scious con­trol is a com­plex and hard-to-define con­cept in it­self, it may be more use­ful to clas­sify strate­gies by when they oc­cur dur­ing the emo­tional re­sponse pro­cess.

  1. Selec­tion of situ­a­tion: oc­curs be­fore the stim­u­lus that causes the emo­tion.

  2. Mod­ifi­ca­tion of situ­a­tion: oc­curs af­ter the stim­u­lus, but be­fore the emo­tional re­sponse be­gins.

  3. De­ploy­ment of at­ten­tion: oc­curs dur­ing the emo­tional re­sponse pro­cess.

  4. Change in cog­ni­tion: oc­curs dur­ing the emo­tional re­sponse pro­cess.

  5. Mo­du­la­tion of re­sponses: oc­curs af­ter the emo­tional re­sponse pro­cess. (Gross, 1998).

Meth­ods #1 and #2, situ­a­tion se­lec­tion and mod­ifi­ca­tion, re­quire a cer­tain de­gree of self-knowl­edge, in or­der to de­cide which situ­a­tions to seek out and which to avoid. There can be a con­flict here be­tween long term and short-term goals–for ex­am­ple, a timid per­son can re­duce their anx­iety by avoid­ing so­cial situ­a­tions, but in the long run this can lead to un­de­sir­able so­cial iso­la­tion. To fur­ther com­pli­cate things, the emo­tional re­sponse it­self can back-prop­a­gate and mod­ify the situ­a­tion–wit­ness my taek­wondo in­struc­tor’s re­sponse to my freak-outs.

De­ploy­ment of at­ten­tion has three sub-cat­e­gories: dis­trac­tion, con­cen­tra­tion, and ru­mi­na­tion. Dis­trac­tion in­volves fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion onto neu­tral or non-emo­tional as­pects of the situ­a­tion, or shift­ing at­ten­tion from difficult to tractable goals. Con­cen­tra­tion in­volves fo­cus­ing fur­ther on the situ­a­tion, try­ing to en­ter a state of flow in or­der to avoid frus­tra­tion. In ru­mi­na­tion, at­ten­tion is di­rected onto the feel­ings them­selves, an­a­lyz­ing them. Wadlinger and Isaa­cow­itz (2011) sug­gest that at­ten­tion can be trained in or­der to bet­ter de­velop emo­tional reg­u­la­tion skills. Skill at di­rect­ing and con­trol­ling at­ten­tion is partly an in­nate trait, but stud­ies in­di­cate that at­ten­tional skills are also plas­tic and can im­prove with prac­tice. For ex­am­ple, low mood can be im­proved with (gaze-based) train­ing, which cre­ates a bias to­wards look­ing at pos­i­tive stim­uli, such as happy in­stead of an­gry faces,

The fourth cat­e­gory, change in cog­ni­tion, hap­pens dur­ing the step where per­cep­tions of the situ­a­tion are given an emo­tional weight. The per­ceived ca­pac­ity to man­age or con­trol a situ­a­tion af­fects the emo­tions as­signed to it. Clas­si­cal Freudian defenses in­clude de­nial, iso­la­tion, and in­tel­lec­tu­al­iza­tion of the situ­a­tion. Events can also be rein­ter­preted in a more pos­i­tive light–for ex­am­ple, down­ward so­cial com­par­i­son, or a goal be­ing re­framed so that failure at the ini­tial goal be­comes a suc­cess ac­cord­ing to the new goal. Ac­cord­ing to stud­ies, this kind of reap­praisal has a larger effect in com­plex than in sim­ple situ­a­tions. Fac­tors that af­fect reap­praisal in­clude at­tri­bu­tion of an event to self ver­sus oth­ers, be­liefs about the con­trol­la­bil­ity of the event, ac­countabil­ity, ex­pec­ta­tions, and im­plicit per­sonal the­o­ries of how emo­tion works. (Koole, 2009).

The last cat­e­gory, re­sponse mod­u­la­tion, does not af­fect the in­ter­nal emo­tional ex­pe­rience at all, but only the ex­pres­sion of it. Ex­am­ples given by the au­thor in­clude var­i­ous med­i­ca­tions such as anx­iolyt­ics, ex­er­cise, re­lax­ation ther­apy, and self-sooth­ing with al­co­hol, cigarettes, other drugs, or food, as well as sim­ply ini­ti­at­ing or hid­ing the ex­pres­sion of a given emo­tion. (Gross, 1998).

How does this help me?

Well, for one, it gives me a good idea of which tech­niques I’ve already tried, and which ones I might try next.

1. Si­tu­a­tion se­lec­tion. To start with #1, I have used situ­a­tion se­lec­tion in the past, mainly when I de­cided to quit swim­ming to avoid pre-race melt­downs. That worked in the short term; when I wasn’t putting my­self un­der that much com­pet­i­tive pres­sure any­more, I had no rea­son to freak out, and my gen­eral stress lev­els dropped as well. But #1 is a method I would pre­fer to use spar­ingly, if at all; it seems that it would se­ri­ously limit my fu­ture prospects, and run­ning away from the things that scare me doesn’t re­ally fit with the mind­set of want­ing to be stronger.

If any­thing, find­ing some­thing challeng­ing or even scary causes me to be even more mo­ti­vated to keep do­ing it un­til I don’t find it scary any­more. (I think the thought pro­cess goes some­thing like ‘life could through you into a situ­a­tion where you need this skill at any mo­ment, and wouldn’t it be way less stress­ful if you’d already been prac­tic­ing it?’

2. Si­tu­a­tion mod­ifi­ca­tion. Is there any way that, with­out quit­ting taek­wondo en­tirely, I could find a way to pick and choose what I do in class, avoid­ing the things that I know will make me up­set? I can’t think of any spe­cific ex­am­ples of how I could do this, ex­cept for mak­ing up ex­cuses not to do par­tic­u­lar ex­er­cises that I’m bad at and that frus­trate me. (I have an ac­tual ex­cuse not to do frog jumps–bad knees –but I think the fact that I can’t do it makes me more frus­trated than if I went ahead and did them, be­cause it makes me feel like I’m not as good as the oth­ers.)

I can think of other situ­a­tions where I’ve used this tech­nique to calm my­self down, though. Re­cently, at our uni­ver­sity’s So­cial Sciences Ball, I wasn’t hav­ing that much fun and I was run­ning out of what lit­tle steam I’d had to be­gin with by 11 pm. I was very up­set to learn that the bus to take us back to cam­pus, which I’d thought would come at 11:30 pm, ac­tu­ally would come at 12:30 pm. (My stamina for so­cial events lasts about 3 hours, and if I can’t re­move my­self from the situ­a­tion at that point, I start feel­ing some strange equiv­a­lent of claus­tro­pho­bia, and will prob­a­bly start cry­ing if I can’t get away.) Over my boyfriend’s protests of ‘it’ll look bad on me if you leave by your­self now!’ I re­source­fully texted my brother and got him to look up the bus sched­ule on­line. It didn’t end up work­ing as planned, but hav­ing the feel­ing of con­trol re­stored calmed me down a lot, and when it turned out that the bus sched­ule was wrong, I came back to the party and went on en­joy­ing my­self like noth­ing had hap­pened.

This tells me that any­time my stress is due to feel­ing like I’m not in con­trol, and there’s some proac­tive ‘tak­ing-con­trol’ move that I can ex­e­cute, it’s prob­a­bly worth it even if it doesn’t change my ac­tual situ­a­tion much–it’ll still have a huge effect on my emo­tional state, which in some cases is more im­por­tant than the situ­a­tion caus­ing it.

3. De­ploy­ment of at­ten­tion: dis­trac­tion, con­cen­tra­tion, and ru­mi­na­tion. If I think about it, dis­trac­tion is ex­actly what I do when I have a com­pel­ling stim­u­lus available to dis­tract my­self with. This is more likely to be when I’m alone, and that might well be the rea­son why melt­downs aren’t a prob­lem when I’m alone. (One rea­son. Lack of so­cial pres­sure is prob­a­bly an­other.) If I’m in pub­lic, and I’m about to burst into tears, I’ll tell my­self ‘okay, start think­ing about one of your sto­ries, now!’ But if some­one tries to talk to me, es­pe­cially if the sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion is the same as what’s frus­trat­ing me, my at­tempts at self-dis­trac­tion get de­railed fast. Con­clu­sion: I could prob­a­bly make this a use­ful method, but I need to come up with bet­ter dis­trac­tions.

Con­cen­tra­tion, get­ting into a flow state, is a promis­ing method, but likely it’s some­thing I would have to start do­ing be­fore I be­came frus­trated at all. Cer­tainly spar­ring in taek­wondo is com­plex enough to oc­cupy some­one’s full at­ten­tion, leav­ing be­hind no ex­cess pro­cess­ing power for frus­tra­tion. Cor­rec­tion: this is the case for some­one who knows what they’re do­ing. As a be­gin­ner, my in­abil­ity to plan strat­egy fast enough to use it in real time means that I don’t nor­mally plan my strat­egy at all while fight­ing. That means a lot of space left over for frus­tra­tion-in­ad­e­quacy-failure thought chains. The im­pli­ca­tion: as I do get good enough to plan in real time, and co­or­di­nated enough to en­joy the mo­ment-to-mo­ment satis­fac­tion of push­ing my­self hard (like I do while swim­ming), frus­tra­tion won’t be so much of a prob­lem.

Ru­mi­na­tion is a strat­egy I’ve definitely used be­fore, but I’m not at all sure that it’s an effec­tive strat­egy in this con­text. In an ex­cep­tion to the gen­eral rule that think­ing about my emo­tions dulls them, think­ing about frus­tra­tion and what’s caus­ing it leads to an ex­plo­sive feed­back loop. How­ever, I might find it de­sir­able to use this method when I’m alone, in or­der to track down and list all the thoughts and emo­tions that oc­cur, as user: aelephant sug­gested in this com­ment.

4. Changes in cog­ni­tion. This step of the pro­cess, where the emo­tion it­self ac­tu­ally hap­pens, seems like a pro­duc­tive place to start. The ‘down­wards so­cial com­par­i­son’ method could be trans­lated into ‘com­par­ing my­self to peo­ple who’re the same belt level as me, in­stead of com­par­ing my­self to the black belts,’ or at the very least per­suad­ing my­self that not be­ing as good as the black belts isn’t a rea­son to get frus­trated.

Reap­prais­ing a situ­a­tion in a more pos­i­tive light, or re­fram­ing your goal so that your ac­tual re­sults count as suc­cess rather than failure, also seems promis­ing–es­pe­cially be­cause of­ten, when in the pro­cess of reap­prais­ing a goal, I re­al­ize that it wasn’t even my real goal. Back when I was 14 and com­pet­ing in swim­ming, ‘win lots of races’ and even ‘go to the Olympics some­way’ were ex­plicit goals, even if I didn’t want to ad­mit it to friends and fam­ily.

But I didn’t start taek­wondo in­tend­ing to ‘win lots of tour­na­ments’. That wasn’t even some­thing I thought about at all. My goals were, ap­prox­i­mately, ‘be­come fit­ter and more flex­ible, learn some self defense in case any­one ever tries to rape me when I’m out late at night, and any­way mar­tial arts are cool so I’ll ac­quire cool­ness just by show­ing up.’ The fact that I turned out to have re­ally awful re­ac­tion times, mak­ing it hard for me to win at spar­ring, doesn’t equate to a failure at any of these goals–but the goal of ‘beat other peo­ple in spar­ring’ sneaked in there some­where, prob­a­bly be­cause it’s eas­ier to mea­sure than my origi­nal goals, and then start­ing caus­ing me frus­tra­tion when I failed to achieve it.

6. Re­sponse Mo­du­la­tion. I do the sim­plest form of this a lot–the iron-jaw, stare-into-space-and-don’t-cry ap­proach does work a sig­nifi­cant por­tion of the time to keep any­one from notic­ing un­til the emo­tions sub­side on their own. But that’s if no one tries to talk to me.

As for the sub­tler meth­ods, I already use ex­er­cise as a mood reg­u­la­tor, and fre­quently candy or baked goods to cheer my­self up, and/​or ad­dic­tive books and shows. (Tel­ling my­self “if you get through this, you can watch 30 min­utes worth of Res­cue 911 epi­sodes on Youtube” is a sig­nifi­cant cheer-up fac­tor.) But most of those meth­ods aren’t available to me on the spot when I’m ac­tu­ally in a taek­wondo class and start­ing to get up­set.


My mi­ni­a­ture foray into schol­ar­ship has al­lowed me to make a list of meth­ods that hu­mans use to reg­u­late emo­tions. Meth­ods that look promis­ing in­clude: find­ing ways to change the situ­a­tion so that I feel in con­trol; dis­tract­ing my­self from up­set­ting situ­a­tions; try­ing to get into a state of con­cen­tra­tion or flow; and reeval­u­at­ing my goals to be re­al­is­tic or achiev­able.

My plan for the fu­ture: try to think of spe­cific ways I could use this meth­ods, i.e. a par­tic­u­larly com­pel­ling chain of thought that I could use as a dis­trac­tion, and then try all of them out and com­pare. I plan to show part or all of this ar­ti­cle to at least one of my in­struc­tors, too, so that they have an idea of what I’m work­ing on, and can help me a lit­tle.

Note #1: I did get feed­back from ju­li­a­wise on my first post, sug­gest­ing that I in­ves­ti­gate cog­ni­tive be­havi­oural ther­apy and di­alec­ti­cal be­havi­our ther­apy. I think this ar­ti­cle is long enough, though, so if I do in­ves­ti­gate it, it’ll go in a sep­a­rate post. Don’t worry, ju­li­a­wise, it was good ad­vice and I’m not ig­nor­ing it.

Note #2: If any­one wants to see the ar­ti­cles in my refer­ence list, I can’t post links be­cause I ac­cessed them through my school ac­count, but I have the PDFs saved and I can email them to you.


San­der L. Koole. (2009). The psy­chol­ogy of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion: an in­te­gra­tive re­view. Cog­ni­tion and Emo­tion, 23 (1), 4_41

James J. Gross. (1998). The Emerg­ing Field of Emo­tion Reg­u­la­tion: An In­te­gra­tive Re­view. Re­view of Gen­eral Psy­chol­ogy, Vol. 2, No. 5,271-299

Wat­son David C., Sinha, Birenda. (2008). Emo­tion Reg­u­la­tion, Cop­ing, and Psy­cholog­i­cal Symp­toms. In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Stress Man­age­ment, Vol. 15, No. 3, 222–234

Wadlinger, Heather A., Isaa­cow­itz, Derek M. (2011). Fix­ing Our Fo­cus: Train­ing At­ten­tion to Reg­u­late Emo­tion. Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Re­view,15(1) 75–102