By Dr. Lisa Emery
Psychologists have found that frequent use of three emotion regulation strategies – suppression, rumination, and avoidance – are associated with a host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Part of these strategies’ allure is they sometimes provide short-term relief from your negative emotions. For example, avoiding the boredom or anxiety of schoolwork by playing video games can certainly make you feel better temporarily.
The problem with these strategies lies in their long-term consequences. All three block our ability to plan and solve problems, two important tasks for navigating your college years. Even their short-term use can sometimes backfire, leaving you feeling worse than you did before.
Fortunately, there are other effective techniques that can be substituted for these less adaptive ones. Like any habit change, learning to use these techniques takes time and practice. Fortunately, there are resources available at Appalachian State University that can help you in your journey to healthy emotion management.
Instead of suppression…
Suppression can take two forms: attempting to “squash” your feelings, or trying to hide your feelings from other people. There are a few instances in which suppression can be useful. First, suppression is an effective way to reduce the amount of positive emotion you’re feeling. While we typically don’t want to experience less happiness, there are times when reducing your giddiness may help (for example, if you’re trying to sit down and study). Second, there are times when masking your feelings from others may improve a social situation. Expressing overwhelming joy when your friend is feeling sad is probably not good for the long-term health of your friendship.
Suppression, however, can also backfire in many ways. For example, suppression tends to backfire when used on negative feelings: the more you suppress a negative feeling, the stronger that feeling can get. In addition, it’s important to remember that our emotional expressions are powerful social signals to others. Smiling lets people know that you appreciate them, whereas displaying the furrowed brows of anger lets people know that it might not be the best time to approach you!
Mindfulness is a concept that arises from Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions, and has found a place in many modern psychotherapies. When we are mindful, we pay attention to everything that is happening to us, internally and externally, but without trying to change or judge the experience. If you find yourself getting anxious over an upcoming test, for example, you can pause and pay attention to the sensations and thoughts that arise, rather than trying to inhibit the thoughts and suppress the sensations. Often, simply acknowledging the feelings can reduce their power over you. In addition, some forms of exercises, like yoga and Tai Chi, can be good mindfulness practice.
Instead of rumination…
Rumination is a repetitive, passive re-living of negative events. It’s like having a video of your past failures playing on a loop in your head. Rumination can leave you mired in the swamp of your thoughts, unable to move on from the past. People who ruminate a lot tend to have difficulty solving problems, because problem solving requires flexible thinking about the future. Rumination is strongly linked with depression, and because of its passive nature, there aren’t many instances in which it is a recommended strategy.
Rumination’s “close cousin” is reflection, a way of thinking about the past that puts negative events in a broader context. Done well, reflection may help you distance from the feelings of the event to think about it more objectively. There are several ways to engage in reflection; for example, writing about the event in a journal (e.g., reflective writing or expressive writing) may help you see the event from a different point of view. Similarly, talking to yourself about an event in the third person (“she” or “he”), rather than the first (“I”) may help reduce the emotional experience and gain some perspective. For example, think about the difference in how you feel reading these two sentences: “I am so sad” vs. “She is so sad.” Finally, reappraisal, or changing the way you are thinking about a situation, can also help. Rather than thinking, “Failing that exam will ruin my life,” think “Failing that exam means that I still have more to learn.”
Instead of avoidance…
Related to suppression, avoidance is a strategy where you stay away from any situation that reminds you of a past negative event to avoid a re-experiencing of the feelings. Selective and short-term use of avoidance can be helpful in some situations – for example, if you’re so angry with a friend that you’re afraid you’ll say something to permanently harm the friendship, it’s probably better to put down the phone and not send that terrible text! But if you want that friendship to continue, it’s time to employ some more healthy emotion regulation strategies.
…Try active coping
Active coping means taking steps to directly address a problem. In the case of an argument with a friend, an active coping attempt would be to sit down with them at a time when you are both calm, and discuss the reasons for your argument. Addressing a problem head-on can be scary, but it is an important step towards a healthy adulthood. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what the next step would be to address a problem; fortunately, Appalachian has resources to help you with almost any problem you might face. A quick trip to the university’s Current Students webpage can get you started.
Dr. Lisa Emery is a developmental psychologist with specific interests in cognitive and emotional self-regulation in adulthood. She teaches in Appalachian State University’s Department of Psychology.