As a child, do you remember being sent to your room during a tantrum to have time to cool off? Have you ever tried to psych yourself up before a big event like a football game, or conversely, tried to calm your nerves before a presentation? Have you ever procrastinated on an assignment; if so, was the temporary relief you gained from momentarily avoiding your responsibilities worth the stress you encountered later? These are all examples of common ways you may have regulated your emotions, but what exactly is emotion regulation and why is it important?
In order to discuss emotion regulation, we first need to define what emotions are. James Gross, an emotion researcher at Stanford University, views emotions as brief responses affecting both behavior as well as the body that are generated during events with the potential to present challenges or opportunities (Gross, 1998a). Most importantly, Gross (1998a) believes that emotions can be modulated or changed, and modulation is what determines the final emotional response. Emotion regulation concerns this modulation of emotion in order to alter what emotions are experienced as well as when and how they are experienced. The process model of emotion regulation pioneered by Gross (1998a) details five major points of focus during emotion regulation: situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, & response modification (Figure 1).
Life is comprised of an infinite amount of complex choices, and our emotional responses are partly determined by which situations we select. For example, let’s imagine that you’ve just been invited to a party; the only problem is that your ex-girlfriend will be there with her new partner. What situation do you select: go to the party or not? You can choose to put yourself into a potentially awkward situation or spend your time doing something else.
While you are in a particular situation, you can also modify what happens during it. This is particularly relevant for unavoidable situations. Continuing with the previous example, perhaps the party is for work and you are required to attend. During the party, you can modify the situation by choosing to not talk to your ex or by keeping the conversation away from potentially contentious topics. Additionally, you can also choose which particular aspects of the situation to focus on or selectively deploy your attention. For example, you may have the option to focus on watching your coworkers sing karaoke as opposed to directing your attention to your ex flirting with her new beau.
The meaning that you ascribe to the event can also be modulated through changing cognition. At the party, you may conclude that your ex’s current infatuation is better than you, which could result in feelings of jealousy, anger, and inadequacy. Or you might decide that it’s good to see your ex happy again, which could lead to feelings of happiness and relief. How you choose to think about these situations especially how you can reframe or reappraise your thinking in a more positive or adaptive light is the focus of many types of behavioral therapy.
After the emotional response occurs, you still have the opportunity to modulate your response or influence your emotions afterwards. You may choose to suppress your emotions, or use drugs or alcohol to alter both your cognitive experience as well as your body’s physiological responses. Many of these response modulations involve avoidance strategies, which will be discussed in a later post.
You may have noticed that most of the emotion regulation points proposed by this process model are antecedent-focused or happen before the emotion response. Only response modulation is response-focused, occurring after the emotional response. Gross (1998b) specifically examined the difference between antecedent- and response-focused regulation strategies and found that although both methods were effective at reducing emotion expression, antecedent strategies (reappraisal) were better at reducing the experience of emotion while response strategies (suppression) induced physiological changes. This suggests that antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation processed may have different purposes and mechanisms.
In regard to what occurs in the brain during emotion regulation, Kohn and colleagues (2014) recently published a meta-analysis examining the neural pathways involved in emotion regulation. Their results indicated that during emotion regulation, the superior temporal gyrus (STG), angular gyrus, and supplementary motor area (SMA) are important for processing information from the frontal cortex; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is implicated in attentional processing; the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) is involved in sending signals of salience; and the anterior middle cingulate cortex (aMCC) has an integrative role in relaying emotional information and is also important for generating affect. Briefly, the neural pathway they proposed is that the VLPFC, SMA, angular gyrus, and STG receive information about emotion and arousal from the amygdala. Appraisal starts in the VLPFC, which examines whether or not there is a need for emotional regulation. The information is then projected to the DLPFC where the actual regulation occurs. Finally, the DLPFC sends signals via the aMCC back to the amygdala, SMA, angular gyrus, and STG leading to the behavioral and physiological reactions (Figure 2).
It’s easy to see how complicated each potential emotional event can be, and how difficult it can be for researchers to dissect what exactly is occurring during emotional processing. In fact, recent research by Aldoa and Nolen-Hoeksema (2013) has shown that people use multiple emotion regulation strategies (some even simultaneously) to help control their emotional response. This work highlights the importance of understanding that Gross’ model is a simplified version or framework for what occurs in real life. The next blog posts in this series will further examine emotion regulation, particularly what happens when it is dysfunctional; there will be a specific focus on the its clinical significance in psychological disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder. In the meantime, I (and the band ABBA) encourage you to not waste your emotions!
Aldao, A., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). One versus many: capturing the use of multiple emotion regulation strategies in response to emotion-eliciting stimulus. Cognition and Emotion, 27(4), 753-60.
Gross, J. J. (1998a). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-99.
Gross, J. J. (1998b). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224-37.
Kohn, N., Eickhoff, S. B., Scheller, M., Laird, A. R., Fox, P. T., & Habel, U. (2014). Neural network of cognitive emotion regulation – an ALE meta-analysis and MACM analysis. NeuroImage, 87, 345-55.