Emotional regulation Part II: research summary

by Swimmer9639 min read19th Mar 201240 comments


Personal Blog

Abstract: Emotional regulation is a topic currently being studied in the field of psychology. Five different types of emotional regulation strategies have been identified, distinguished by the stage of the emotion-response process in which they occur. To drastically simplify, this strategies are: situation selection, situation modification, deployment of attention, changes in cognition, and modulation of responses. 



This is a follow-up to my previous post about my problem with emotional regulation. This is also my first outside-of-the-classroom foray into scholarship, lukeprog style. Mainly what I found is that it’s surprisingly time-consuming and frustrating. I suffered a lot of akrasia, compared to my usual, while writing this post–mainly because I kept thinking ‘oh my god, and then I have to cite my sources!’ This may be an area where I need more practice...

What is emotion anyway?

Apparently there are quite a lot of competing definitions for ‘emotion’. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising–the concept of emotion seem simple because most of the processing happens below conscious awareness, but emotions are as complex as the brains that create them.

The definition that most research in emotional regulation uses is the ‘response tendency’ definition: emotions are adaptive behavioral and/or physiological responses, and they happen when the organism is put in evolutionarily significant situations. The internal experience of emotion may lead to a particular behaviour, but may not: emotion is a feedback mechanism that leads to various behaviours, rather than the direct cause of behaviour. Recent research has covered the specific purposes that emotions accomplish. They can facilitate decision-making, prepare the individual for a fast response to a given situation, inform on the match between organism and environment, and serve a social function; in general, they allow for learning. Emotional responses are not set in stone, and can be modulated on the way to taking their final shape. (Gross, 1988).

What does this mean for me, personally? One, emotions exist for a reason. They are adaptive, and attempting to turn mine off entirely or prevent them from affecting my decisions would likely not be adaptive. Two, emotions are triggered by ‘evolutionary significant’ situations. To take a wild guess on what that might mean, being in a situation that involved competition against people who were much, much better than you might have had severe consequences in the ancestral environment...and even if not, for most of human history survival was more important than fun, and that would mean focusing on activities where you were likely to succeed, rather than those you liked. My emotional response may be trying to inform me that the match between my organism and the environment is less than ideal–or would have been if I were living 50 000 years ago.


Emotional Regulation

According to the people who study it, emotional regulation is what happens when people try to increase, decrease, or maintain their emotions, whether positive or negative. (For once, this seems like a pretty straightforward definition.) People may try to change the kind of emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them.

“The available evidence does not support the existence of discrete emotional states. Instead, emotional responding appears to be organized in terms of a few fundamental dimensions, including valence, arousal, and approach-avoidance. The influence of emotion regulation on people’s emotional states is therefore likely to be similarly dimensional. In other words, "emotion regulation may not be so much concerned with getting people in or out of discrete emotional states like anger, sadness, or joy. Rather, emotion regulation may change people’s emotional states along dimensions such as valence, arousal, and approach-avoidance.” (Koole, 2009).

The study of emotion regulation isn’t new. Freud studied it in the form of ego defenses, which he saw as non-conscious processes that could, depending on the specific method used, result in reality distortion, excess energy consumption, and unnecessary non-gratification–to him, these forms of emotional regulation were maladaptive. (Gross, 1998).

More recently the study of coping has focused on emotional regulation from the point of view of conscious, deliberate, and adaptive processes. These can be based on fixing the underlying problem, i.e. problem-focused coping, or on reducing the negative emotions without changing the physical reality, i.e. emotion-focused coping. In general, emotion-focused coping is less effective and more likely to be associated with psychological distress. (Watson & Sinha, 2008). According to more recent research, emotional regulation processes “may be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have their effects at one or more points in the emotion generative process.” (Gross, 1998).

An individual’s skill at emotional regulation must also be distinguished from their innate emotional sensitivity, which affects how much and how quickly they respond to an emotion-causing stimulus. In theory, Person A could be very sensitive, and experience a swift rush of negative emotions in response to an upsetting stimulus, but still be able to down-regulate the feelings afterwards, whereas Person B responds less quickly and steeply but lacks the skill to redirect the emotions they do experience. And whereas emotional sensitivity correlates with temperament differences in infants, and seems to develop independently of environmental influences, skill in emotional regulation develops and changes based on the quality of children’s social interactions, and can continue to improve throughout life. (Koole, 2009). 

Different strategies of emotional regulation can be classified by whether they are consciously controlled or automatic–however, since conscious control is a complex and hard-to-define concept in itself, it may be more useful to classify strategies by when they occur during the emotional response process.

  1. Selection of situation: occurs before the stimulus that causes the emotion.
  2. Modification of situation: occurs after the stimulus, but before the emotional response begins.
  3. Deployment of attention: occurs during the emotional response process. 
  4. Change in cognition: occurs during the emotional response process.
  5. Modulation of responses: occurs after the emotional response process. (Gross, 1998).

Methods #1 and #2, situation selection and modification, require a certain degree of self-knowledge, in order to decide which situations to seek out and which to avoid. There can be a conflict here between long term and short-term goals–for example, a timid person can reduce their anxiety by avoiding social situations, but in the long run this can lead to undesirable social isolation. To further complicate things, the emotional response itself can back-propagate and modify the situation–witness my taekwondo instructor’s response to my freak-outs.

Deployment of attention has three sub-categories: distraction, concentration, and rumination. Distraction involves focusing attention onto neutral or non-emotional aspects of the situation, or shifting attention from difficult to tractable goals. Concentration involves focusing further on the situation, trying to enter a state of flow in order to avoid frustration. In rumination, attention is directed onto the feelings themselves, analyzing them. Wadlinger and Isaacowitz (2011) suggest that attention can be trained in order to better develop emotional regulation skills. Skill at directing and controlling attention is partly an innate trait, but studies indicate that attentional skills are also plastic and can improve with practice. For example, low mood can be improved with (gaze-based) training, which creates a bias towards looking at positive stimuli, such as happy instead of angry faces, 

The fourth category, change in cognition, happens during the step where perceptions of the situation are given an emotional weight. The perceived capacity to manage or control a situation affects the emotions assigned to it. Classical Freudian defenses include denial, isolation, and intellectualization of the situation. Events can also be reinterpreted in a more positive light–for example, downward social comparison, or a goal being reframed so that failure at the initial goal becomes a success according to the new goal. According to studies, this kind of reappraisal has a larger effect in complex than in simple situations. Factors that affect reappraisal include attribution of an event to self versus others, beliefs about the controllability of the event, accountability, expectations, and implicit personal theories of how emotion works. (Koole, 2009).

The last category, response modulation, does not affect the internal emotional experience at all, but only the expression of it. Examples given by the author include various medications such as anxiolytics, exercise, relaxation therapy, and self-soothing with alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, or food, as well as simply initiating or hiding the expression of a given emotion. (Gross, 1998).


How does this help me?

Well, for one, it gives me a good idea of which techniques I’ve already tried, and which ones I might try next.

1. Situation selection. To start with #1, I have used situation selection in the past, mainly when I decided to quit swimming to avoid pre-race meltdowns. That worked in the short term; when I wasn’t putting myself under that much competitive pressure anymore, I had no reason to freak out, and my general stress levels dropped as well. But #1 is a method I would prefer to use sparingly, if at all; it seems that it would seriously limit my future prospects, and running away from the things that scare me doesn’t really fit with the mindset of wanting to be stronger.

If anything, finding something challenging or even scary causes me to be even more motivated to keep doing it until I don’t find it scary anymore. (I think the thought process goes something like ‘life could through you into a situation where you need this skill at any moment, and wouldn’t it be way less stressful if you’d already been practicing it?’

2. Situation modification. Is there any way that, without quitting taekwondo entirely, I could find a way to pick and choose what I do in class, avoiding the things that I know will make me upset? I can’t think of any specific examples of how I could do this, except for making up excuses not to do particular exercises that I’m bad at and that frustrate me. (I have an actual excuse not to do frog jumps–bad knees­–but I think the fact that I can’t do it makes me more frustrated than if I went ahead and did them, because it makes me feel like I’m not as good as the others.)

I can think of other situations where I’ve used this technique to calm myself down, though. Recently, at our university’s Social Sciences Ball, I wasn’t having that much fun and I was running out of what little steam I’d had to begin with by 11 pm. I was very upset to learn that the bus to take us back to campus, which I’d thought would come at 11:30 pm, actually would come at 12:30 pm. (My stamina for social events lasts about 3 hours, and if I can’t remove myself from the situation at that point, I start feeling some strange equivalent of claustrophobia, and will probably start crying if I can't get away.) Over my boyfriend’s protests of ‘it’ll look bad on me if you leave by yourself now!’ I resourcefully texted my brother and got him to look up the bus schedule online. It didn’t end up working as planned, but having the feeling of control restored calmed me down a lot, and when it turned out that the bus schedule was wrong, I came back to the party and went on enjoying myself like nothing had happened.

This tells me that anytime my stress is due to feeling like I’m not in control, and there’s some proactive ‘taking-control’ move that I can execute, it’s probably worth it even if it doesn’t change my actual situation much–it’ll still have a huge effect on my emotional state, which in some cases is more important than the situation causing it. 

3. Deployment of attention: distraction, concentration, and rumination. If I think about it, distraction is exactly what I do when I have a compelling stimulus available to distract myself with. This is more likely to be when I’m alone, and that might well be the reason why meltdowns aren’t a problem when I’m alone. (One reason. Lack of social pressure is probably another.) If I’m in public, and I’m about to burst into tears, I’ll tell myself ‘okay, start thinking about one of your stories, now!’ But if someone tries to talk to me, especially if the subject of conversation is the same as what’s frustrating me, my attempts at self-distraction get derailed fast. Conclusion: I could probably make this a useful method, but I need to come up with better distractions.

Concentration, getting into a flow state, is a promising method, but likely it’s something I would have to start doing before I became frustrated at all. Certainly sparring in taekwondo is complex enough to occupy someone’s full attention, leaving behind no excess processing power for frustration. Correction: this is the case for someone who knows what they’re doing. As a beginner, my inability to plan strategy fast enough to use it in real time means that I don’t normally plan my strategy at all while fighting. That means a lot of space left over for frustration-inadequacy-failure thought chains. The implication: as I do get good enough to plan in real time, and coordinated enough to enjoy the moment-to-moment satisfaction of pushing myself hard (like I do while swimming), frustration won’t be so much of a problem.

Rumination is a strategy I’ve definitely used before, but I’m not at all sure that it’s an effective strategy in this context. In an exception to the general rule that thinking about my emotions dulls them, thinking about frustration and what’s causing it leads to an explosive feedback loop. However, I might find it desirable to use this method when I’m alone, in order to track down and list all the thoughts and emotions that occur, as user: aelephant  suggested in this comment. 

4. Changes in cognition. This step of the process, where the emotion itself actually happens, seems like a productive place to start. The ‘downwards social comparison’ method could be translated into ‘comparing myself to people who’re the same belt level as me, instead of comparing myself to the black belts,’ or at the very least persuading myself that not being as good as the black belts isn’t a reason to get frustrated.

Reappraising a situation in a more positive light, or reframing your goal so that your actual results count as success rather than failure, also seems promising–especially because often, when in the process of reappraising a goal, I realize that it wasn’t even my real goal. Back when I was 14 and competing in swimming, ‘win lots of races’ and even ‘go to the Olympics someway’ were explicit goals, even if I didn’t want to admit it to friends and family.

But I didn’t start taekwondo intending to ‘win lots of tournaments’. That wasn’t even something I thought about at all. My goals were, approximately, ‘become fitter and more flexible, learn some self defense in case anyone ever tries to rape me when I’m out late at night, and anyway martial arts are cool so I’ll acquire coolness just by showing up.’ The fact that I turned out to have really awful reaction times, making it hard for me to win at sparring, doesn’t equate to a failure at any of these goals–but the goal of ‘beat other people in sparring’ sneaked in there somewhere, probably because it’s easier to measure than my original goals, and then starting causing me frustration when I failed to achieve it.

6. Response Modulation. I do the simplest form of this a lot–the iron-jaw, stare-into-space-and-don’t-cry approach does work a significant portion of the time to keep anyone from noticing until the emotions subside on their own. But that’s if no one tries to talk to me.

As for the subtler methods, I already use exercise as a mood regulator, and frequently candy or baked goods to cheer myself up, and/or addictive books and shows. (Telling myself “if you get through this, you can watch 30 minutes worth of Rescue 911 episodes on Youtube” is a significant cheer-up factor.) But most of those methods aren’t available to me on the spot when I’m actually in a taekwondo class and starting to get upset.



My miniature foray into scholarship has allowed me to make a list of methods that humans use to regulate emotions. Methods that look promising include: finding ways to change the situation so that I feel in control; distracting myself from upsetting situations; trying to get into a state of concentration or flow; and reevaluating my goals to be realistic or achievable.

My plan for the future: try to think of specific ways I could use this methods, i.e. a particularly compelling chain of thought that I could use as a distraction, and then try all of them out and compare. I plan to show part or all of this article to at least one of my instructors, too, so that they have an idea of what I’m working on, and can help me a little.

Note #1: I did get feedback from juliawise on my first post, suggesting that I investigate cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy. I think this article is long enough, though, so if I do investigate it, it’ll go in a separate post. Don’t worry, juliawise, it was good advice and I’m not ignoring it.

Note #2: If anyone wants to see the articles in my reference list, I can't post links because I accessed them through my school account, but I have the PDFs saved and I can email them to you. 



Sander L. Koole. (2009). The psychology of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Cognition and Emotion, 23 (1), 4_41
James J. Gross. (1998). The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review. Review of General Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 5,271-299
Watson David C., Sinha, Birenda. (2008). Emotion Regulation, Coping, and Psychological Symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, Vol. 15, No. 3, 222–234
Wadlinger, Heather A., Isaacowitz, Derek M. (2011). Fixing Our Focus: Training Attention to Regulate Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review,15(1) 75–102