Regulating emotions

In the last article we discussed what emotions actually are and how they arise within our body-mind system. Now we look at five ways in which they can potentially be regulated.  The five strategies impact on different stages in the generation of an emotion and therefore their efficacy varies with the particulars of a situation.

Situation selection - Is a strategy in which you simply anticipate and avoid situations that you know in advance might be emotionally arousing.

For example if you have a fear of public speaking then this simply means avoiding being put in that situation.  Of course this strategy might not be useful at all for people in a leadership position who are expected to be able to routinely be comfortable to speak in front of the public. Nevertheless situation selection might be a legitimate strategy in many other situations.

Situation modification - is a strategy that assumes that you might not be able to totally avoid emotionally challenging situations but you might by able to change the scenario in some way to promote the feelings you want to have instead.

In the case of fear of public speaking you might not be able to avoid giving the talk but you can visit the venue in advance and familiarise yourself with the audience - you can rehearse what you are going to say enough times that you start to feel more relaxed about it.

If you can't avoid or modify the situation, maybe you can temporarily change the focus of your attention or awareness.  By diverting your attention from an emotionally disturbing input, perhaps you can lessen your response to it.

As a nervous speaker for example, you might selectively focus on the wall behind the audience or seek out a friendly face in the audience; people you know who are already nodding along with what you are saying.  Or it might be possible to focus internally - on thoughts about something that is less anxiety provoking. This tends to be useful in rehearsal and situations when you are anxious because you are anticipating the event. When the event actually arrives it probably needs your full attention if you are going to perform at your best.

The fourth strategy is perhaps more useful than the others so far because you can deploy it no matter what situation you are in.  Reappraisal involves reinterpreting the meaning of a stimulus or event on a way that modifies its emotional impact.  You can imagine there are a number of ways of doing this but three have received the most attention. 

One approach is Reframing or somehow reinterpreting events in less emotional terms.  Old aphorisms such as "Every cloud has a silver lining" is an example of this reframing strategy. We recognise it as a deliberate "attitude of mind"; a conscious choice about how a situation is interpreted.

The second type of reappraisal involves adopting an acceptance perspective that recognises emotions as basically fleeting events that need not define who we are. In the case of a fear of public speaking you might acknowledge and accept that you are afraid, but choose not to hold on to that feeling. By letting this emotion pass through you are in effect choosing not to perpetuate the feeling.

The third type of reappraisal involves distancing yourself from the situation. NLP'ers call this practice disassociating from the situation. Imagine that your are metaphorically stepping back from the situation and imagining seeing an event not in the first person but in the third person. It is as if you are watching the event unfold from a "fly on the wall" perspective. As simple as this sounds, it takes the sting out of events and is especially useful when there is a strong emotion attached to a situation due to something that happened in the past.

The last strategy for regulating emotions is response modulation which involves either suppressing or enhancing the behavioural manifestation of an emotion. If no one knows what you are feeling on the inside this is supression - which - I guess it goes without saying, might be effective in the short term but is not recommended as a healthy long term strategy.  Alternatively we all have the ability (even if we dont tend to practice it) to ramp up our positive feelings by deliberate choice. Personally when I have to "perform" well I say to myself "It's showtime!" and I will deliberately change my posture, take a breath and by this trigger a whole response that puts me in the best physical and mental state for whatever I must do.

The ability to implement these five strategies depends on brain systems generally involved in the control of behaviour which includes parts of the prefrontal cortex which is generally involved in higher executive control.

Derek Jones