From mood disorders to substance abuse, much of psychopathology is related to difficulty in regulating emotions. In a new study, researchers at the University of Buffalo (UB) sought to better understand and categorize the different strategies people tend to use to help manage their negative emotions.
They discovered that emotion regulation strategies tend to fall into three core groupings: evading emotions (distraction and avoidance); fixating on negative thoughts; and acceptance and problem solving.
By streamlining emotion regulation strategies, the new categories can help researchers and clinicians better treat a wide range of psychological disorders and also give people the necessary tools to help regulate their own emotions.
“The groupings can be useful for clinicians who are trying to better characterize the nature of the emotion regulation difficulties their clients are having,” said Dr. Kristin Naragon-Gainey, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Psychology, and an expert on emotion and affect in mood and anxiety disorders.
“Because it’s not always feasible for researchers to assess every strategy, they may now be able to narrow down from the larger group into the core underlying groupings.”
Emotion regulation is a term that describes how people respond to an emotional experience and attempt to feel better. For example, a person who is nervous about public speaking may use distraction to take their mind off a presentation in order to feel calmer.
Emotion regulation becomes problematic when emotions can’t be downgraded, like a lingering sadness that can’t be managed, or if the strategy is unhealthy, such as substance abuse.
“There are different motivations for substance abuse, but one common motivation is that it’s a means of emotion regulation,” said Naragon-Gainey. “If a therapist has a client who is using drugs or alcohol to change their emotions in some way this research may help identify if that client is lacking in other skills.”
For her analysis, Naragon-Gainey and a research team comprised of UB graduate students Tierney McMahon and Thomas Chacko, looked at hundreds of studies that reported correlations between different emotion regulation strategies to understand how they relate to one another. They also wanted to know whether all these strategies could be synthesized into something much simpler and even be applied in a streamlined manner to psychopathology.
The researchers found that people tend to use multiple strategies simultaneously. If one doesn’t work then they’ll move on to another. But it has been unclear to what extent these strategies are distinct.
“What we found was that these strategies weren’t so highly related that they seemed redundant,” she said. “So people did fairly uniquely and specifically report on using certain strategies. Many of the strategies were related, but not everyone who used avoidance also uses rumination, for example.”
The first grouping, which includes distraction and avoidance strategies, involves trying to feel better by steering clear of one’s own negative thoughts and feelings.
“It’s associated with low mindfulness so that you’re not aware of the present moment,” said Naragon-Gainey. “Your thoughts and attention are elsewhere and you’re trying to feel better through that.”
The second grouping involves a tendency to stay fixed on negative thoughts, particularly those of failure and self-blame. In this case, people can’t stop focusing on their negative thoughts and feelings and often suffer through endless rumination.
Strategies found in the third grouping, such as acceptance and problem-solving, are more productive and likely to be useful across multiple situations.
Naragon-Gainey says she hopes to take the research further by asking individuals to assess their emotions on a daily basis. Traditionally, researchers in the emotion regulation field ask about emotions sometimes long after the fact. While this practice is convenient, perfect recall among subjects is nearly impossible.
“In the lab, we’re sending people questions as they go about their day,” she says. “This will provide a better sense of how well this applies to people’s lives and give researchers even more confidence that we’re getting at what’s happening to people.”
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
Source: University at Buffalo