Sometimes it pays not to keep your emotions in check, research finds.
While controlling your emotions is usually thought of as being healthy, it isn’t always.
When there is something you can do about a situation, emotions help to motivate action.
Because emotions encourage us to look for solutions, they can help us escape from difficult situations.
If you reason the emotions away, then you are less likely to make the necessary changes.
However, when there is no escaping a situation, it is better to try and reframe the thoughts.
Reframing is known to psychologists as ‘cognitive reappraisal’.
Dr Allison Troy, the study’s first author, said:
“Context is important.
Our research is among the first to suggest that cognitive reappraisal may actually have negative effects on psychological health in certain contexts.”
Dr Troy explained the advantages and disadvantages of both cognitive reappraisal:
“For someone facing a stressful situation in which they have little control, such as a loved one’s illness, the ability to use reappraisal should be extremely helpful — changing emotions may be one of the only things that he or she can exert some control over to try to cope.
But for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive.
Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation.”
Dr Troy said:
“When stressors are controllable, it seems that cognitive reappraisal ability isn’t just less beneficial, it may be harmful.
These results suggest that no emotion regulation strategy is always adaptive.
Adaptive emotion regulation likely involves the ability to use a wide variety of strategies in different contexts, rather than relying on just one strategy in all contexts.”
When you have control of the situation, focusing on problem-solving can work well, said Dr Troy:
“It may be, for instance, that more active strategies like problem-solving and seeking social support could be particularly beneficial in more controllable contexts.”
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 (Troy et al., 2013).