Written by Lauren Helm, M.A.
image source: http://psych-your-mind.blogspot.com/2011/04/smile-like-you-mean-it-emotion.html
Emotions are so interwoven into our daily activities that we may take for granted the role they play in shaping our experience of life. Emotion-terms are often colloquially tossed around, and it can be a common practice for many of us to share how we feel at any given moment. However, sometimes it can be easy to be taken on a wild “ride” of our emotions, grasping for our bearings as we are swung around by unexpected twists and turns, highs and lows.
Despite the fact that emotions are an integral part of our life experience, it may not be often that we ask ourselves why they even exist. What are our emotions? Why do we have them?
Emotions can be thought of as cognitive and physiological changes that urge us to behave in a particular way. They occur (or are “triggered”) in response to the situation that we are in – or, in other words, what we perceive is happening in our environment. The physiological changes that happen in our bodies (the “feelings” that accompany our emotions, like butterflies or a lump in our throat), and thoughts (i.e. how we interpret something, like, “This is scary” or “How sad”) usually motivate us to take a certain action. The emotion of fear, for example, may lead to physiological changes such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, a racing mind, along with thoughts that “I am in danger, I better get out of here,” and the strong urge to avoid or escape the situation.
Theorists posit that emotions guide us through life, and are designed to help us to survive. “Negative” emotions (such as fear, anxiety, sadness, stress, guilt, etc.) urge us to act in a self-protective way in the face of various potentially threatening situations. These emotions are broadly categorized as those that lead to an “avoidance” response. “Positive” emotions (such as joy, happiness, love, pleasure, etc.) generally are linked with safety and guide us to seek out more of whatever it was that elicited the pleasant emotion, thus typically leading to an “approach” response. Though our emotions are designed to guide us in directions that keep us safe and satisfied, this is not always the case. Oftentimes, instead of supporting us in leading the lives that we want to live, our emotions can seem to work against us, taking destructive control of our lives.
Emotions, in and of themselves, are not bad or good: they just are. They are often feared, however, and in our society, so called “negative” emotions in particular are judged, shamed, or hidden. What recent research has been finding is that it is not the emotions that cause the most suffering or difficulty leading our lives, its how we respond to our emotions that is key. How we relate to our emotions, and what we do with them, is what ultimately appears to have the largest impact on the quality of our lives. Poor emotion regulation (the way that we regulate or how we respond to our emotions) is now thought to be a key factor behind the development and maintenance of multiple psychological and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Emotion dysregulation is the relative absence of adaptive emotion regulation strategies. Specifically, Mennin and his colleagues (2007) define emotion dysregulation as:
(1) Heightened intensity and increased frequency of unpleasant emotions as triggered by internal and/or external cues
(2) Poor understanding of emotions
(3) Negative reactivity to one’s emotional state, and
(4) Reflexive and maladaptive behavioral reactions
What does this mean? Emotion dysregulation is when (1) we are easily and strongly emotionally-triggered, (2) we have difficulty knowing what are emotions are and why we have them, (3) we fear or judge having these emotions as “bad,” and (4) we react to our emotions automatically in rigid, unhelpful ways that often make the situation worse. In other words, emotion dysregulation often leads to a spiral of distress, and in the long-run, makes negative emotions more intense and long-lasting.
Research is finding that emotion dysregulation perpetuated by certain problematic strategies that we use to manage our emotions. Typically, our automatic avoidant responding to distressing emotions and thoughts leads to short-term relief, but greater emotion dysregulation in the long-term. When we try to control or avoid painful or scary thoughts and emotions when there is not the threat of true danger, we are using emotion regulation strategies that may not work in our favor after all (see Hayes et al., 1996). Many studies have found that attempts to suppress thoughts or emotions actually increase their intensity and frequency (see review by Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). Trying to force yourself to stop feeling “bad” in order to feel better is unlikely to be helpful.
In contrast, in is much more likely to be helpful if you engage in adaptive emotion regulation, which, as conceptualized by Gratz and Roemer (2004), is characterized by:
(1) An awareness of and understanding of emotions
(2) Acceptance of emotions
(3) The ability to engage in goal-directed behavior and refrain from impulsive behavior when experiencing negative emotions
(4) Access to emotion regulation strategies perceived as effective
Thus, adaptive emotion regulation is the ability to (1) be able to notice, label, and understand your emotions, (2) acknowledge and accept, instead of resist, the emotions that are present for you, and (3 & 4) flexibly engage in actions that are called for and most effective depending on the needs of the situation, even while you are experiencing emotional upset. Emotion regulation is not about controlling or reducing your emotions, as much as it is about developing a flexible, accepting, and balanced approach to your emotions. This is no easy task, and takes a great deal of practice. Therapy, mindfulness, and/or self-compassion practice may help you to develop more healthy emotion regulation skills, as they are geared towards increasing self-awareness, acceptance, and balance. It may be worth investigating whether you would like to enhance your own emotion regulation abilities, as the ability to truly be with our emotions, as opposed to being controlled by them, can make all the difference in our lives.
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Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the difficulties in emotion regulation scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 41-54.
Hayes, S. C., Wilson, K. G., Gifford, E. V., Follette, V. M., & Strosahl, K. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 64(6), 1152.
Mennin, D. S., Holaway, R. M., Fresco, D. M., Moore, M. T., & Heimberg, R. G. (2007). Delineating components of emotion and its dysregulation in anxiety and mood psychopathology. Behavior Therapy, 38(3), 284-302.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.
Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology, 51(1), 59-91.