ONE of the cornerstones of alcoholism recovery is a concept called emotional sobriety. The idea is that alcoholics and other addicts hoping to stay sober over the long haul must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse. Doing so is a lifelong project and requires cultivating a whole new way of thinking about life’s travails.

But the recovery literature also says “first things first”—which simply means “don’t drink.” Especially in the early days of recovery, alcoholics are counseled not to analyze why they are addicted or how they might have avoided alcoholism: “Don’t think and don’t drink” is the maxim. Take it one day at a time and do whatever works—prayer, exercise, meetings—to distract the mind from the compulsion to pick up a glass.

These approaches represent two very different kinds of emotional regulation, when you consider it. Distraction is unthinking—it amounts to cognitive disengagement from thoughts of alcohol and the anxiety of craving by any means possible. It is a blunt instrument in the toolbox of recovery. In contrast, long-term emotional sobriety requires the slow, steady rethinking about all the people, places and things that once did—and could again—throw us off kilter. New research suggests that a healthy mind deftly flips between these techniques when facing unpleasant emotions. By studying these mechanisms, researchers are beginning to understand how people cope with painful feelings and what goes wrong when those skills are missing.

Recovery programs teach these fundamental principles of emotional regulation because addicts do not know them intuitively. But the techniques apparently do come naturally to many healthy people. At least that is the conclusion of some recent studies by psychological scientist Gal Sheppes of Stanford University and his colleagues who have been examining the strategies that people choose for dealing with negative emotions of different kinds and intensities. The researchers had the idea that people process different kinds of emotional information in the two ways described in recovery literature—either by blocking it entirely or by thinking about it carefully in an effort to reevaluate it. For example, if an experience or thought were especially intense and threatening, people would nip it in the bud early. They would simply disengage and not pay attention, in that way blocking negativity from awareness, much as newly recovering alcoholics are advised to do. This technique would keep potent negative thoughts from ever gaining force.

Distract Me
People faced with milder negative emotions, on the other hand, would not block them out. These emotions would be regulated by a second cognitive mechanism, which applies more elaborate processing to these unpleasant feelings in an effort to render them harmless. But first, the negative thoughts and emotions must be stored in memory for reappraisal and reinterpretation. At least that is Sheppes’s theory, which he and his colleagues tested in a series of laboratory experiments. They hypothesized that healthy people would tend to distract themselves quickly from intense emotional experiences, and in contrast, they would tend to engage with milder, less threatening experiences to diffuse their emotional power.

The researchers recruited 20 volunteers and instructed them on the two methods of emotional regulation—distraction versus reappraisal—then had them view photographs depicting negative emotions of different intensities. A low-intensity image, for example, might show a woman holding her head in an ambiguous state of distress, whereas a high-intensity photograph might show a woman in extreme distress, with blood streaming down her face. The volunteers looked at a series of such pictures, gazing at each for half a second then narrating out loud for five seconds how they were processing the emotion—whether they were distracting themselves from it or thinking about how to reinterpret it. Other volunteers and observers characterized the subjects’ regulatory strategies as either distraction or engagement and reappraisal. Just to be sure the results were accurate, the subjects also pressed a button to indicate which emotional processing style they were using.

The results were unambiguous. Most of the volunteers opted for cognitive engagement when confronted with a low-intensity photograph, and most chose to distract themselves from a high-intensity one, suggesting that switching strategies is a normal, healthy way of dealing with negativity in life. The researchers also gave the volunteers a “surprise” memory test at the end of the experiment and found—as expected—that memory for the emotional photographs was impaired whenever volunteers opted for distraction and disengagement. This result suggests that distraction, as a strategy for emotional regulation, works by not allowing the emotional information to enter memory at all.

This Won’t Hurt a Bit
Intense images are powerful stimuli for priming negative emotions, but even so the scientists wanted a test that was closer to real-life events. In another experiment, they used the anticipation of electrical shocks to create a measurable state of anxiety for volunteers. They hooked them up to electrodes, with which they administered 20 shocks of varying intensity. Just prior to each shock, the volunteers viewed a brief written description of the intensity level of the upcoming shock, allowing them time—12 seconds on average—to choose and use a strategy for regulating their anxiety before getting zapped. As before, the volunteers spoke out loud about which cognitive strategy they chose. The scientists crunched together the data on shock intensity and cognitive choices, and the results were essentially the same as before. As reported in the online edition of Psychological Science in September, volunteers were much more likely to opt for a reappraisal strategy (“this one won’t be so bad”) when confronting an unpleasant but tolerable shock, and they were much more likely to try distracting themselves when they anticipated a strong and intensely painful shock. In short, people generally have the cognitive flexibility to adapt their regulatory choices for the situation at hand.

The finding that people naturally choose to engage with only mildly unpleasant emotions is not surprising. Reinterpretation of emotional events has long been known to be an effective coping strategy, and it is often taught as a part of cognitive-behavior therapy. The findings on distraction, however, run contrary to a long-held view that it is important to engage with intense emotional challenges—and that avoiding or “repressing” them is harmful. This interpretation has been steadily losing ground. Evidence is mounting that, under extremely adverse conditions, some emotional disengagement may indeed be tonic. This approach appears to be true for disaster victims; for people with severe, ruminating depression; and of course, for alcoholics in early recovery.