There’s a new mental-health talking point doing the rounds of social media: emotion regulation. On TikTok, for example, the collection of short videos on the topic have more than 47 million views. In one popular example, emotion regulation is described as the “number one skill human beings should master.” So what is it?
Emotion regulation broadly refers to the strategies we use to notice, identify, and modify our emotional states. When people talk online about emotion regulation, they could be talking about preventing toddler meltdowns, managing romantic conflict, or curbing impulsivity.
But the truth is more complicated than social media framing might imply. The ability to navigate emotions is critical to our day-to-day functioning, says Brett Ford, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Affective Science and Health Laboratory. But always avoiding distress should not be the goal, she explains. If we only view bad emotions as something to get rid of, then we could end up feeling worse.
Different emotion regulation strategies come with distinct sets of pros and cons, depending on the individual and the situation. Brett Marroquín, an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University and a clinical psychologist, says it’s important not to view these specific strategies as “good” or “bad.” The context and desired outcome are critical.
Marroquín notes that science has established a clear link between emotion regulation and psychological, physical, and social well-being. And thanks to these studies, we have a sense of what strategies are most effective, depending on context. In general, it’s “good to have a variety of emotion regulation strategies available to pull from flexibly as needed,” he says.
How can emotion regulation help you?
Certain emotion regulation strategies are easier to use in some situations than others, Ford says. One strategy is to be intentional in participating in certain situations. If you feel like seeing a person you’ve had a conflict with will put you in a bad mood, you can avoid a party with mutual friends. But realistically, we don’t always have control over the situations we find ourselves in. Further, some methods might be helpful in the short term but ineffective in the long term.
“Avoiding stressful situations is really effective for helping us avoid stress, but if we avoid every situation we think might be stressful, we end up missing out on a lot of living,” Ford says.
The strategy Ford recommends most often is emotional acceptance. She describes this as an active process that involves bringing awareness to one’s negative emotions without judging or attempting to avoid those emotions. Her research suggests people who engage in emotional acceptance are more likely to experience greater psychological well-being over time.
“If we avoid every situation we think might be stressful, we end up missing out on a lot of living.”
“While many other emotion regulation strategies have an explicit goal to decrease one’s negative emotion immediately, acceptance does not,” Ford says. “Instead, acceptance aims to change one’s relationship with negative emotions by reducing the judgemental meta-states that tend to accompany our emotions.”
Cognitive reappraisal, another strategy, is also shown to benefit mental health. This is the process of changing the way you think about a situation and choosing to interpret it in positive terms. Let’s say you didn’t get the job you wanted. You could ruminate over everything that didn’t go right. Or, you could engage in cognitive reappraisal and view the experience not as a lost cause but as a chance to work on your interview skills or a chance to find a better fit.
Ford’s research also suggests that — in some instances — cognitive reappraisal can keep people from improving their situation. One might decide political action isn’t worth it after an upsetting political event, for example. In the case of Covid-19, Ford and colleagues found cognitive reappraisal during the pandemic improved mental health but was also associated with following fewer health recommendations, like social distancing.
Cognitive reappraisal, at times, can lead to a trade-off between feeling good and doing good, Ford says.
“Negative emotions help us do things in our environments, and if we’re very successful at getting rid of those emotions, we can lose the motivation to take important actions,” she explains.
Not all emotion regulation strategies are equally helpful
Ultimately, “the best strategy really depends on the specifics of the particular situation or one’s goals in that situation,” says Marroquín.
That said, habits like rumination — brooding over your distress — without engaging in active problem-solving can have long-term consequences. Worrying about the future, or catastrophizing, can also be harmful.
“We often don’t think of these as emotion regulation strategies, but in fact, they are common ways people seek to regulate emotion, even if they don’t pay off so well,” Marroquín explains.
Unfortunately, the research suggests venting isn’t very helpful, either. Sharing our distress can be soothing in the short term, “it doesn’t seem to pay off in terms of lasting change or new ways of perceiving our situation,” he says.
For venting to work in the long run, the person we’re venting to needs to challenge our thinking or guide us to a different emotion regulation strategy.
In turn, a person might want to be honest about their negative feelings and choose to experience conflict so that they face the issue and find a resolution. This is an individual decision based on circumstance, but it can be healing.
“It's also important to note that if a person is really struggling with emotional difficulties or mental health, it's best to seek out a professional,” Marroquín says. “Professionals know specific ways to address emotion regulation in treatment.”