The key to healthy emotional control is to be flexible, new research finds.
People with lower levels of depression and anxiety tend to vary their emotional control strategy successfully depending on whether the situation can be explained.
Dr Peter Koval, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Our results caution against a ‘one strategy fits all’ approach, which may be tempting to recommend based on many previous findings regarding reappraisal as a strategy for regulating emotion.
Simply using any given emotion regulation strategy more (or less) in all situations may not lead to the best outcomes — instead, contextually-appropriate emotion regulation may be healthier.”
For the research, people were tracked over a week.
They were asked to indicate how they managed their emotions and how much control they had over the situation.
People with the highest levels of mental health tended to change their strategy more based on how much control they had.
When they had less control — in other words, they couldn’t change things — they tended to reappraise the situation.
Reappraisal involves thinking about a situation in a different way.
E.g. “I’ve been rejected romantically, but at least I tried, maybe next time I’ll be more lucky.”
But when they had more control — in other words, they could do something about the situation — they tended to avoid thinking differently.
The study’s authors write:
“We found that people with higher well-being increased their use of reappraisal as contexts became less controllable, whereas individuals with lower well-being showed the opposite pattern.”
The reason reappraisal is bad when you have control, is that it stops you doing something about the situation.
The study’s authors explain:
“When a situation can be directly changed, reappraisal may undermine the adaptive function of emotions in motivating action.”
When the situation can be changed, it is better to let your emotions — whatever they may be — motivate that change, rather than trying to change the emotions.
When the situation can’t be changed, however, it is better to try and change the emotion.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Haines et al., 2016).