Emotions are a central component of being human. The joy that we feel when meeting a loved one after a long absence and the sadness that we feel when we say goodbye again, both serve a function and should be expressed effectively. Emotion regulation refers to the way in which we manage our emotions. For most of us this comes naturally, and we generally manage to convey our emotions through our behaviours and thoughts, in a manner that is both effective and appropriate for how we feel. Different patterns of emotion regulation exist. For instance, an individual may over-regulate their emotions, meaning that they suppress or inhibit some of what they feel. In contrast an individual who under-regulates their emotions may be extremely expressive and respond more sensitively to emotional stimuli. Both of these methods of emotion regulation have their merits. However problems may arise if an individual presents as extremely under or over regulated.
If we consider emotion regulation as a continuum with under-regulated towards one end and over-regulated towards the other, the majority of us probably fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps with slight over-regulated or under-regulated tendencies. For individuals who fall closer to either end of this continuum, healthy emotion regulation may be more difficult. Unhealthy emotion regulation occurs when a person consistently finds it difficult to respond to emotional stimuli within their environment in an appropriate manner, which in turn affects their overall functioning and well-being. Research has demonstrated several links between unhealthy emotion regulation and symptoms of psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, disordered eating and personality disorders.
So what defines healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation?
Research suggests that we use a number of different strategies in order to regulate our emotions (consciously and unconsciously), both prior to and following an emotional event. Some examples of common emotion regulation strategies include:
- Cognitive reappraisal: refers to the act of recognizing the pattern your thoughts have fallen into and changing that pattern to reduce the intensity of that emotion. For example: You miss the bus, which ends up making you late for work. Your first response may be to become frustrated, appraising the situation by thinking “This bus system is dreadful! The buses are never on time”. This appraisal is likely to make you feel angry. If you are prone to intense anger, your anger may run away with you, causing you to be fuming by the time you reach work. Now if you were to consider another perspective such as “I’m never usually late, I’m sure my boss will understand”, you will probably arrive to work in a much more relaxed manner.
- Expressive suppression: refers to the act of inhibiting or hiding emotion-expressive behaviour following an emotional event.For example: A co-worker humiliates you in work in front of all of your colleagues. You feel yourself becoming visibly upset. Your first response may be to cry or act out against that person. By acting out, you draw further attention to the situation which ultimately causes you to become more humiliated and more upset. Alternatively, you could practice expressive suppression. By doing this, you ignore and therefore reduce your feelings of embarrassment or sadness which allows you to react more calmly to the individual who upset you. This may allow you to express your feelings rationally and avoid escalating the situation.
An individual who is regulating their emotions in a healthy manner will use these strategies and others, to effectively convey how they are feeling. An individual who misuses these strategies may develop unhealthy patterns of emotion regulation.
In a recently published research paper, Katherine Dixon-Gordon and her colleagues identified a number of emotion regulation patterns that are closely linked with psychopathology. They found that a person’s repertoire of strategy skills as opposed to a single skill in isolation, determined the likelihood of them displaying symptoms of a psychological disorder. This signifies that unhealthy emotion regulation occurs when a combination of strategies are being misused. Therefore, an individual who typically identifies as an over-regulator and who uses expressive suppression often, may use several alternative strategies that buffer or protect them from developing an unhealthy pattern of emotion regulation. If an individual does not possess an effective repertoire of emotion regulation strategies, they may develop symptoms of psychopathology.
Consider the following example of someone who is struggling with unhealthy emotion regulation:
Susan is a 38 year old woman. She had a difficult childhood growing up. Susan has remarked that her parents were often absent when she was younger. Susan used to get upset easily as a child and as she grew older she found that people often commented to her that she over-reacted to simple issues. If she becomes angry or upset about something, she finds it difficult to accept and often acts out, which she usually regrets later. Susan has self-harmed in the past when she has become extremely upset. Susan finds it difficult to maintain relationships as she often becomes overly dependent on people that she comes to trust.
Susan has a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which is categorized by pervasive patterns of emotion regulation, as well as issues relating to self-image and interpersonal relationships. Susan’s difficult childhood and absent parents as well as her own biological vulnerabilities mean that it is likely that she did not learn effective strategies to regulate her emotions whilst growing up. This means that as an adult, she is not equipped with sufficient skills or strategies to communicate her emotions effectively. Susan may have turned to deliberate self-harm in the past as a way of regulating her emotions.
Luckily for Susan, and other individuals who have trouble with emotion regulation, it is possible to relearn strategies for better emotional control. This is often done through skills training. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is one common form of cognitive-behavioral treatment for individuals who have difficulty regulating their emotions effectively. DBT is an evidence-based treatment which was developed by Marsha Linehan in the late 1980s and is based on the premise that due to biosocial factors, some individuals are prone to react more intensely or out of the ordinary to certain emotional stimuli. Through the development of skills that help to facilitate both acceptance and change, individuals learn to tolerate distress and regulate their emotions. DBT is generally provided in the form of weekly group skills-training sessions, individual therapy sessions and phone-coaching.
If we all fall somewhere along an emotion regulation continuum, consider where you might fall. Do you recognise any strategies that you use to express your emotions? We all express our emotions differently, and it is likely that we each have both strengths and weaknesses in how we strategize to convey these emotions. Consider how you respond emotionally on a daily basis. If reading this prompts you to question whether or not, you or someone that you is presenting with unhealthy patterns of emotion regulation, please contact your family doctor or a medical professional.
Some useful links:
DBT Centre of Vancouver
Some emotion regulation skills
5 ways to get your unwanted emotions under control
Repertoires of emotion regulation: A person-centered approach to assessing emotion regulation strategies and links to psychopathology. (Dixon-Gordon et al., 2015)
Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.