Once upon a time people firmly believed that thinking and feeling were two separate capacities, destined to often clash. As 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza put it, “When a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune.” By this logic, the intensity of experiences such as sadness, anger or fear can trump our reasoning. Yet modern research tells us otherwise. We are not slaves to our passing passions; rather we regulate emotions all of the time. You resist exploding at a client just because he is tardy, and you manage not to throw things at the house next door during their noisy barbecue. Controlling anger and frustration keeps our professional and private lives on track—and prevents irksome situations from escalating.
Regulating emotions goes beyond keeping them down. We also need to find healthy outlets for our feelings. These inner responses, after all, can be excellent guides, as when fear warns you off a risky choice. They enrich daily life as well, leading us to revel in the joy of a birthday party or hoot ecstatically when a favorite team wins a game.
How exactly we go about striking a balance with our emotions is a topic that psychologists have been plumbing for decades. Their work has underscored that there is no single perfect approach. A good option in one case could be cataclysmic in another scenario. Instead we rely on dozens of techniques.
To make sense of these disparate tactics, psychologist James Gross of Stanford University developed a model in 1998 that sought to explain how emotions arise. Gross argued that any emotional experience follows a trajectory with five distinct stages in which a person can intervene to alter the outcome. At first we decide whether to seek out or avoid an emotional scenario. Then we may modify the situation itself. In the next two stages, we sideline unhelpful feelings by redirecting our attention or reappraising our response. Finally, we can deploy coping mechanisms to handle the physiological and behavioral consequences of an emotional event. The comprehensive scope and simplicity of Gross's model quickly made it the most influential framework for emotion regulation in the field.
The catch, however, is that most of our responses at each stage are automatic. How we react in the face of calamity is often the result of habit or circumstance rather than deliberate choice. “The learned set of emotion regulation behaviors is powerful and not easy to modify,” says University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Iris Mauss.
Yet we can learn complementary techniques to make the most of our knee-jerk responses. Current research has confirmed that with a little training and awareness, we can learn to avoid potential pitfalls and prevail over every part of this process. By heightening sensitivity to long-term goals, the broader context of an event and a feeling's intensity, we can make smart choices in even fraught situations. In short, we can master our emotions.
Stage 1: Pick and Choose
It is a rainy Friday afternoon. You have had an exhausting week, and you want nothing more than to curl up on the couch and take a nap. You had planned to spend a long, lonely evening working on your taxes. Then a friend calls to ask if you want to see a movie instead.
You are facing the very first stage in Gross's model: “situation selection.” You have the power to choose the path your evening will take and the emotional outcome of your day. Here you have to engage in some psychological fortune-telling. How might an evening of taxes make you feel in the future? If you see the movie instead, how will your Saturday shape up? This task can be challenging. Spending time with a friend may be restorative—or it might lead you to neglect necessary chores.
Before you decide, bear in mind that people routinely overestimate the intensity of future emotions. Numerous studies have shown that negative outcomes are often not as bad as we expect, and sometimes pursuing a seemingly more positive option can inadvertently set us up for disappointment. For example, in findings published in 2011 Mauss and several colleagues asked 69 participants to read either an article extolling the value of happiness or an emotionally neutral story. Afterward the participants watched a feel-good film clip. Curiously, the people who had read about the benefits of happiness felt less cheery after the movie than the participants who had not read the article. Why the paradox? Mauss theorizes that a preoccupation with being happy can lead people to expect too much from everyday pleasures. Additionally, evaluating your level of bliss may heighten self-awareness, which could hinder the experience of pleasure when it comes your way.
Psychologist Maya Tamir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found that rather than making the pursuit of happiness a guiding principle in life, a person should think in terms of broader aims. In 2012 Tamir and Brett Q. Ford, now at the University of Toronto, gave 136 people a battery of tests, including one designed to assess emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognize, control and express emotions. The participants pondered situations and selected the emotion they would prefer to experience in that moment. For example, “If you need to reach a compromise, would you rather feel angry or happy?”
Tamir and Ford found that people with high emotional intelligence opted for whichever feeling had greatest utility—regardless of whether that emotion was pleasant. A little anger might help an otherwise easygoing person prepare for a difficult negotiation, and piquing anxiety could create extra incentive to study for an exam. A good policy, then, is to keep your long-term goals in mind when evaluating a decision such as how to spend your Friday evening.
Stage 2: Take Action
Often people face an emotional event with no way to change course. Perhaps they have to read a eulogy at a funeral or sit next to a particularly irksome aunt during a holiday meal. In these cases, the best options involve “situation modification,” or changing elements of the environment to make things easier.
The key is to anticipate the potential for stress and take proactive measures. These interventions can be as simple as carrying a lucky charm to make you feel more comfortable or asking a friend to sit nearby as a conversational buffer. Such strategies can also avert further annoyance. For example, if a neighbor is making a lot of noise, you may be better served asking him to quiet down now rather than waiting it out and becoming more frustrated.
Recent research suggests that people who do not take steps to ease difficult circumstances will only compound their troubles. In 2013 Franklin & Marshall College psychologist Allison S. Troy, along with Mauss and New York University mindfulness researcher Amanda Shallcross, recruited 170 volunteers who had experienced a challenging life event in the two months prior to the study. The experimenters first rated how controllable these events were—ranging from accidents and illnesses that no one could have foreseen to things caused directly by the individual's actions, such as losing a job because of poor performance. Next, the volunteers watched a sad movie while consciously trying to view the film in a positive light.
Some people found this task to be more taxing than others did. Among the participants who were very successful in reframing the film, those whose recent history had included a stressful but controllable event, such as getting fired because of shoddy work, reported more symptoms of depression than counterparts whose experiences had been less controllable. Events that could have been averted left people more susceptible to depression, perhaps because their failure to prevent problems primed them for feelings of hopelessness. And people who could recast a negative event in a positive way may be most at risk because their flexible thinking allows them to recognize different outcomes to their earlier life events. Individuals in controllable scenarios, therefore, should identify and address sources of stress proactively rather than assuming they can manage the emotional fallout later.
Stage 3: Look Elsewhere
When it is too late to change any aspect of a situation, Gross proposed that people deploy their attention to their advantage, either through distraction or through focus on the matter at hand. For instance, if you need to keep a serious demeanor during an important professional meeting, you might avoid glancing at a colleague who enjoys clowning around during work hours.
Whether you should concentrate your attention or divert it will depend in part on the situation's intensity. In a series of studies, psychologist Gal Sheppes of Tel Aviv University asked participants to either reinterpret a sad photograph in a way that made it less worrisome—seeing tears of joy as opposed to grief, for example—or think of something completely different. Although people who reimagined an image's meaning could alter their emotional response, participants often opted for avoidance. Sheppes found that the more unsettling an image was, the more often people preferred to self-distract. This result suggests that attending to a powerful stimulus can be exhausting, making the opportunity to look away a welcome relief.
In 2014 Sheppes took these findings a step further. He asked 22 participants to look at photographs with varying emotional intensities. This time, however, he gave them additional information. He instructed some of the subjects to respond in a way that would minimize their immediate negative feelings and told other participants that they would have to confront this image later in the experiment. Once again, most people looked away when an image was especially distressing, but those who believed they would view the image in the future were more likely to study even the intense pictures. Distraction, therefore, is an easy option but not necessarily the best way to respond to a recurring concern.
Admittedly, controlling attention can be a challenge: our thoughts and gaze often wander despite our best efforts. Yet certain therapies might help. For example, working memory training, which bolsters the brain's ability to hold and manipulate multiple pieces of information, can boost many facets of emotion regulation, including attention. Typically this training involves learning memory strategies, such as mental rehearsal and mnemonic devices, and doing exercises that use working memory. In addition, mindfulness-based stress-reduction therapy can teach practitioners to observe and detach from inner reactions to strengthen emotional management. In 2010 Gross and Philippe Goldin, now at the University of California, Davis, found that eight sessions of this therapy and a half-day meditation retreat could help people with social anxiety disorder learn to attend to their breathing to refocus during an unpleasant experience.
Stage 4: Think Again
The people in Sheppes's 2014 study who did not look away from disturbing photographs engaged in a process that psychologists call “cognitive change” or reappraisal. This is when individuals tackle thoughts that lead to an emotional response. For example, a performer with stage fright might reframe nervous energy as “getting pumped” for his next show.
In its most extreme form, some people engage in this stage through prolonged pondering of their personal experiences and sensations. This practice, known as rumination, can intensify symptoms of depression and aggression. A better technique, according to psychologists Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Ozlem Ayduk of U.C. Berkeley, is “self-distancing,” or imagining the situation as an impartial observer. Instead of asking “Why do I feel like that?” they recommend addressing the question in the third person: “Why does Steve feel like that?”
In 2012 Kross, working with colleagues at Ohio State University and VU University in the Netherlands, published findings from a study in which they examined how self-distancing strategies affect feelings and behaviors. In the first experiment they asked 94 volunteers to rapidly solve anagram puzzles and then announce their solutions aloud. The experimenters, meanwhile, stoked the students' ire by repeatedly demanding that the speaker raise his or her voice. After this activity the students had to visualize the events that had just taken place in one of three ways: as they themselves experienced them, as though they had been a mere witness to the events, or without any special instructions.
Kross and his colleagues found that the participants who imagined the events as though they had been bystanders harbored significantly fewer aggressive thoughts and feelings than their colleagues who had relived the preceding moments. In a follow-up experiment, students who used this fly-on-the-wall perspective for thinking about an emotional moment showed less aggressive behavior than their peers who had not employed self-distancing.
Stage 5: Let It Out
But what if, despite your best efforts, you still find yourself walloped by an emotional blow? If someone unexpectedly shares an insulting opinion, for example, you might not be able to avoid feeling hurt, but you can still respond in many ways. Your jaw might drop in indignation, you could take a deep breath to calm your rising pulse, or you might smile and act unfazed. In the final stage of regulation your options are limited to managing your bodily response.
A person's immediate reaction may be dictated by personality, experience or culture. For example, many Western societies advocate venting, or the release of stress through conversation or exercise. Unfortunately, these techniques can sometimes fuel a person's fury further, revving up energy instead of releasing it.
The primary strategy that people employ at this stage is suppressing their physical reactions. This response results in part from parents raising their children to behave in this way. Not screaming, hitting or crying whenever you feel like it is an integral part of socialization—but holding back emotions can take a toll. In a classic experiment, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University found that when people restrained their emotions during either a comical or sad film clip they tended to give up earlier on a subsequent anagram puzzle than participants who could express their feelings. Resisting emotional responses had taxed their willpower and energy.
This stress and exhaustion could explain why inhibited expression of feelings is linked to health problems. Johan Denollet and his colleagues at Tilburg University in the Netherlands found in 2010 that people who regularly suppress their emotional distress—a pattern called type D personality—have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Denollet has also found that those who hold back emotions suffer more from chronic pain, tinnitus and diabetes than the general population.
Suppression can also put your relationships at risk, as psychologist Emily Impett of the University of Toronto and her colleagues discovered in a 2012 study. In a survey of 80 couples, Impett learned that men and women felt emotionally distanced when they discovered that their significant other had not disclosed his or her feelings in the past. In a follow-up three months later the researchers found that “suppressor couples” had worse-functioning partnerships than other participants.
In addition, a host of studies make it evident that positive feelings are far easier to squash than negative ones. Restraining your response—whether smiling in spite of your sadness or holding back an inappropriate giggle—is ultimately a powerful strategy that should be used sparingly.
The lessons from suppression research are an important reminder that regulating emotions need not mean avoiding them. Instead people can learn to better anticipate their own reactions to intense moments, visualize the outcomes they would prefer and identify the actions that could change those future feelings. By acknowledging and exploring why we feel a certain way, we can use both happy and troubling events to our advantage. They may even prompt us to dig into our beliefs, experiences and misconceptions—and discover new insights into ourselves.
Five Tips for Emotional Health
Emotions are hard to control. But even without a fully fledged strategy for regulation, you can adopt some basic techniques to improve your well-being:
Be active. Physical exercise and intellectual engagement usually prevent people from focusing on negative emotions too much. Strain your body once in a while at the gym or enjoy good food, books and music. Such pastimes can make it easier to look at the bright side of life.
Try new habits. Disrupting your routine can help you focus on positive events and avoid boredom. For example, start a diary and take note of nice things that happen to you. Reserve a few minutes each day to remind yourself of happy times.
Be social. Mingle with folks you like. An active social life is an effective means to overcome everyday worries and mild anxieties.
Be thankful. Being grateful for what you have received enhances satisfaction.
Don't set the bar too high. It is possible to want happiness too much. Putting pressure on yourself to be merry all of the time may itself become a source of discontent. It is okay—and healthy—to experience a whole spectrum of emotions.