The study of emotion regulation is a burgeoning subfield within the modern social sciences. It explores how individuals influence the emotions they have, as well as when and how they experience and express their emotions. Whereas an emotion refers to a brief response to an internal or external event, emotion regulation is the process by which individuals influence the intensity, duration, valence, or manifestation of that response. Some researchers argue that all emotions are inherently regulated, so that emotion need not be distinguished from emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation is distinct from coping, insofar as coping focuses primarily on decreasing a negative emotional experience. Emotion regulation, in contrast, can include increasing or decreasing both positive and negative emotions. Emotion regulation may be conscious or unconscious, it may reflect controlled or automatic cognitive processes, it may occur at multiple time points in the course of an emotional response, and it may exert a multiprong effect on numerous facets of emotion (i.e., subjective experience, behavioral expression, physiological response).
Early interest in the field of emotion regulation can be traced back to Freudian psychoanalytic perspectives on unconscious anxiety regulation, as well as to the early stress and coping literature. Contemporary perspectives now rely heavily on James Gross’s process model of emotion regulation (1998), in which he distinguishes between antecedent-focused strategies, which occur before an emotion is generated, and response-focused strategies, which are aimed at altering an already existing emotion by increasing or decreasing the experience, outward behavior (such as by suppressing), or physiological response. Antecedent-focused strategies include situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, and cognitive change (i.e., reappraisal). Situation selection refers to either approaching or avoiding specific places, people, or objects in order to alter their emotional impact. Attentional deployment is used to alter a specific aspect of a situation by focusing one’s attention toward it. Cognitive change has gained increasing attention in cognitive therapies as a means to alter a person’s emotional response upstream by changing the way one thinks about a given situation. Response-focused strategies include any act that influences one’s ongoing experience of behavioral or physiological emotion response. An example includes behavioral suppression, or the dampening of one’s outward displays of emotion (such as trying to constrain facial expressions of happiness).
Researchers have begun to examine whether some types of emotion regulation strategies are more adaptive than others. Initial evidence demonstrates that reappraisal is an adaptive strategy associated with improved social functioning, positive emotion, and well-being. Suppression, by contrast, is a maladaptive strategy associated with elevated levels of negative affect and decreased positive affect. The chronic use of maladaptive strategies is thought to represent a core mechanism underlying numerous clinical disorders, ranging from binge eating and schizophrenia to bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety. In a 2004 paper, Ann Kring and Kelly Werner highlight two ways in which clinical disorders might represent difficulties regulating strong feelings; namely, through either emotion dysregulation, which involves the inappropriate use of otherwise intact regulatory processes, and problems in emotion regulation, involving an absence or deficit of basic regulatory processes. Whereas emotion dysregulation might involve an individual who is able to reappraise but simply does not implement his or her skills in the appropriate context, problems in emotion regulation refers to profound deficit in the requisite skills of reappraisal. Additional research is needed to examine the ways different clinical disorders represent such impairments, and whether such difficulties are transdiagnostic.
Developmental psychologists have given extensive treatment to the study of emotion regulation in infancy. Temperamental differences in emotion regulation have suggested that children have innate differences in the threshold to elicit positive or negative emotions as well as differences in the capacity to self-soothe, an important regulatory strategy. Emotion regulation is learned early in life largely by external agents such as caregivers. Joseph Campos, Carl Frankel, and Linda Camras argue that the infant and caregiver represent a “coregulatory system,” and that early in development the parents’ expressive behaviors serve as powerful regulators of a child’s current emotional state. Children often synchronize and coordinate the expressions of their caregivers as a means to learn how to appropriately express feelings in given contexts. However, as the infant develops, he or she becomes increasingly less reliant on the caregiver and more independent in the initiation and control over regulating his or her feelings. With further age advancement, research across the lifespan suggests people also become more effective in regulating their own feelings as they age.
SEE ALSO Behavior, Self-Constrained; Coping; Emotion and Affect; Freud, Sigmund
Campos, Joseph J., Carl B. Frankel, and Linda Camras. 2004. On the Nature of Emotion Regulation. Child Development 75 (2): 377–394.
Gross, James J. 1998. The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Approach. Review of General Psychology 2: 271–299.
Kring, Ann M., and Kelly H. Werner. 2004. Emotion Regulation in Psychopathology. In The Regulation of Emotion, eds. Pierre Philippot and Robert S. Feldman, 359–385. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum.