Importance of Emotion Regulation

We are no strangers to emotions. We are constantly exposed to a variety of stimuli that can evoke various types of emotions in us. For instance, walking down the city street, we may see people hugging or fighting, we may hear a baby crying, we may smell food that reminds us of our favourite restaurant and we may receive a text message with some sad news.  All these may happen within a few seconds.

It may be prudent for us get a clearer understanding on what we mean by emotion before examining the need for regulating it.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus today on a precise definition of emotion. The term emotion, however, is contextually referred to by all researchers while talking about the six basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

Six emotions

World renowned researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Director of ‘Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory’,  defines emotions as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans”

A simpler definition is that emotion is any mental experience with high intensity and high level of either pleasure or displeasure. Another one is that emotions are bodily reactions that are physical and instinctive and are prompted by either threat, reward or anything in between.

What we do know, scientifically, is that emotion begins when a stimulus is perceived by one or more of our senses. Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, which is consistently scanning for threats and opportunities, responds with alacrity to the stimulus. If what is sensed is recognised as a threat, then the vigilant amygdala triggers the autonomic nervous system to prepare us for the action of flight or fight.

The amygdala also instructs the hypothalamus to release hormones that activate our sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline is released and our heart rate accelerates, blood pressure increases, and blood sugar is elevated to assist us in our fight-or-flight response to the threat. At the same time, our digestion and immune response is suppressed. The brain system has prepped up our body for quick response to any eventuality. Obviously, this heightened state of the body cannot continue for a long period. Fortunately, the body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. Adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, our heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other systems resume their regular activities.

We must understand that these emotional reactions occur automatically and unconsciously and in a sense are hard-wired. According to Antonio Damasio, director of the ‘Brain and Creativity Institute’, these emotions are action programs that exist not just in human brains but also in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs, he says, go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

We need to realize that evolution has developed these programs to achieve something very important. For example, emotional arousal of fear allows us to take action, even without thinking, so that we can quickly get away from danger without any delay. Probably, fear has saved more lives than any other emotion that we experience.

Unfortunately, there are too many situations in modern day life that can cause a stress response similar to fear in our bodies. Changes at work place, problems in relationships, family issues, demands on limited financial resources, illness, accidents can all cause stress. Even seemingly small daily hassles like someone pushing us in a queue can make us feel stressed. When these negative events keep happening to us one after the other, the body’s stress response is triggered repeatedly.

When these stress responses becomes prolonged (chronic), it has a very different effect compared to the short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. In many cases, the system controlling the stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. Attention, memory, and the way we deal with emotions are negatively impacted. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions and hormones acting on our brain.

Here is a concrete experiment that establishes the effect of negative feelings.

According to scientists at Ohio State University, a 30-minute argument with our partner can slow our body’s ability to heal by at least a day. If we keep arguing on a regular basis, that healing time scales up. Researchers tested couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arms. When the couples were asked to spend enough time talking about an area of disagreement that provoked emotion, the wounds took about 40 per cent longer to heal than those in the control group. This response, say the researchers, is caused by a surge in cytokines, the  immune molecules that trigger inflammation. High levels of cytokines are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Antonio Damasio claims that emotions and feelings are two different things. His theory is that feelings in contrast to emotions, occur after we become aware of the physical changes that are triggered by emotion and it is only then, that we experience the real feeling of fear or threat.

Our memories of past experiences become encoded into triggers and these triggers automatically switch on the psycho-emotional response.

The type of feelings that are evoked in us depends on the recorded experiences of how we manged such situations in the past.

 As Antonio Damasio says, emotional stress is inevitable if we live in large urban centres. Such a stress releases certain hormones that are connected with fear and anger and they not only damage our arteries and the heart but also damage receptors that are on the surface of nerve cells and neurons. As the repeated episodes of negative stimuli continue for a long time, we get into a state of chronic stress and the neurons themselves start getting damaged.

Emotional stress not only harms our cardiovascular and immune systems but exposure to chronic stress also impairs learning and memory. Stress hormones, known as glucocorticoids of which one is cortisol, slow the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. They also kill existing hippocampal neurons and disconnect the networks of neurons that move information through your brain. Prolonged chronic stress can cause depression.

Another factor that works against us, is that evolution has hard-wired us to give high priority to defend ourselves from serious threats. This leads us to subconsciously give lot more importance to all negative experiences of the past shadowing our positive experiences. This “negativity bias” results in our spending much more time ruminating over the minor frustrations that we have experienced in the past. Small irritations like bad traffic and a disagreement with a loved one can fully occupy our mind making us to miss out on the many opportunities that we get to experience positive factors like wonder, joy, empathy and gratitude.

Hence, there is a critical need to become aware and then regulate our emotions in order to support our psychological and physical well-being.

Emotion regulation enables us to control and modify the frequency, intensity, duration and type of our emotional responses. Thus, emotion regulation is a mechanism enabling better coping with the environmental demands.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that emotions are useful and important signals informing us about either external circumstances or our own internal states.  If we can become aware of these signals and if we can properly regulate our responses to them, we can lead healthier and happier lives.

Although part of emotion regulation happens automatically, more effective responses by us for longer term benefits do require conscious control of information processing in our brains. To do this, we use our prefrontal cortex which downregulates emotion-related regions such as the amygdala by inhibiting neural activity in these regions.

The Cognitive Model of Emotion looks like this:

Event → Interpretation → Emotion → Response

 Let us imagine the following situation to understand all the four parts.

A blue car cuts us off very close to our vehicle while we are driving down the highway (Event). The following thought speeds across our mind: “That fool is going to kill somebody” (Interpretation). We feel angry (Emotion). So we hit the gas in a valiant attempt to catch up with the car and snap a photo of the license plate (Response).

A critical aspect of the Cognitive Model is that while the first three parts are largely automatic and outside of our control, how we act (Respond) to a great extent is under our control. If we have trained ourselves to regulate our emotions, then we don’t have to chase down the blue car, even though that’s our first instinct.

The advantage of brain regulation is that it reduces our tendency to react hurriedly to a situation, instead of evaluating the options available to us and choosing the optimal one.

With regular training and practice of emotion regulation, when we were cut off by the vehicle, our brain’s automatic interpretation and emotion would have been less intense, resulting in much less anger and we therefore would have decided not to chase down the car.

The most effective way to regulate our emotion is to re-interpret the situation. For instance, we can try to imagine that the driver of the blue car may be a terrified husband on the way to the hospital with his wife going into labour in the back seat. Such a reinterpretation would automatically moderate our emotions and we are likely to take a more pragmatic decision.

While there are many other strategies that can be used to actively regulate our emotions, especially the negative ones, the most commonly studied strategy is reappraisal, which involves deliberately changing the way we think about the meaning of an emotionally evocative stimulus or situation. In this explicit form of emotion regulation, we need to effectively use brain control processes.

Imagine another scenario that in some situation, someone is screaming at us in anger without sufficiently good reason. Our immediate desire would be to scream back or even hit the person.

But if we were to be aware that this person’s mother passed away a day earlier or that he/she is going through a tough divorce and just lost custody of the kids, our reaction will be very different. We may even respond to the anger with compassion.

Let us examine what has changed in eliciting from us two very different responses for the same event.  It is the story that we are telling ourselves about the event that has changed everything.

Kevin Ochsner, Director of ‘The Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab’ demonstrates that changes in our beliefs about a situation forces our brains to change our feelings about the same situation.

In Ochsner’s reappraisal experiment, participants were shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally made all the participants feel sad. They were then asked to imagine that the context is actually a wedding and the people were crying tears of joy. Once the participants imagined the scene as a wedding and changed their appraisal, their emotional response also changed to one of joy and these changed emotions were captured in their brain scans.

On a lighter vein, on how reframing of a situation can completely change the perspective, Edward Russo and Paul Shoemaker provide an amusing story to illustrate the power of framing. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were seeking permission from their superiors to be allowed to smoke while they prayed. The Franciscan simply requested for permission to smoke while he prayed. His request, as to be expected, was straight away denied. The Jesuit, on the other hand, framed the question in a different way: “In moments of human weakness when I smoke, may I also pray?’’ He got the approval.

All of us do make mistakes at various points of time and later feel bad for having made these mistakes. The unhappy feelings or discomfort created by these mistakes sometimes can last a long time. Richard Davidson author of ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ and founder and chair of the ‘Centre for Healthy Minds’ encourages cognitive reappraisal training to help us reduce the impact of distressing and uncomfortable situations that we create by our mistakes.  He says that instead of viewing our mistake as representing the way we normally think, work and behave, we can be trained to feel that the mistake was more of an exception or aberration and could have been committed by anyone. Cognitive reappraisal, can thus help us to reframe the causes of our behaviour and reduce its impact or distress.

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests that certain forms of meditation can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.

Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness which is the desire for happiness for others and wanting to relieve suffering of others through compassion. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that when we have feelings of caring or love for other people, we feel better both psychologically and physically.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually generates lot more joy and happiness is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind and compassionate things for other people.


Positive plus


Now that we have a good idea of ill effects of negative emotions on our lives, let us look at positive emotions.

Among the many health benefits of positive emotions, the main benefit is a reduction in stress and a boost to our general well-being. Positive emotions can actually act as a buffer between us and stressful events in our lives, allowing us to cope more effectively and preserve our mental health. In addition, researchers confirmed that experiencing positive emotions helps us modulate our reactions to stress and allows us to recover from the negative effects of stress more quickly.

According to Fredrickson‘s research, we should aim for a positivity ratio of at least 3 to 1. This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience that we endure, we need to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift us. As we age, this ratios needs to keep moving up a bit to keep us healthy.

We now know that the difference between people who are living healthy and happy lives  and those who are not, is the ability to use their strengths and virtues for purposes greater than themselves. The magnitude of positive emotions that we are able to self-generate from everyday pleasant activities like social interactions, learning, helping others etc. will make us more healthy. According to positive psychology, what creates a fulfilling life is the steady stream of micro-moments of positivity, however fleeting and modest they may be, rather than occasional grandiose gifts of fate. So, we need to grab all these wonderful positive micro-moments in our daily lives, effectively using them to over-ride negative stimuli that we are inevitably exposed to.

A number of studies have shown that increased levels of generosity and helpfulness displayed by us will generate positive emotional feelings in us. Research has also shown that endeavours in creative pursuits,  flexible thought processes, innovative responses to situations and openness to information have all been seen to create similar positive emotional feelings. Research in the area of Positive Psychology by Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi, has shown clearly that positive emotional feelings can improve our coping processes and can also increase health-promoting behaviour. The reasons why positive emotions really make a difference is due to improved thinking or cognitive processing by us which allows us to look at and consider lot more options and possibilities in any given situation. This improved cognitive organization and increased cognitive capacity allows us to look at more active approach to problem-solving.

Indeed, many studies suggest that charity or generous giving generates the same type of happy feelings in our brains similar to the enjoyment that we experience when we are eating our favourite food or spending time with our loved ones. These findings help to explain why behaving with compassion and generosity gives us a pleasurable, uplifting feeling, known as the “helper’s high.”

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests certain forms of meditation that can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.


Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the desire for happiness for others and of compassion as the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that feelings of caring or love for other people generates happiness.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually feels really good is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind, compassionate things for other people.

Using the compassion meditation adapted from the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation, Clinical Psychologist Helen Weng conducted an experiment at ‘Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds’.  The participants in the experiment were gently instructed to extend feelings of compassion toward different people, including themselves, a loved one, a casual acquaintance, and also someone with whom they had difficult relationship.

The mental training in compassion that the participants had undergone earlier, resulted in observable altruistic changes in them towards people who needed help which were reflected in changes to their brain activity. Specifically, when compared with their brain activity before the training, the participants showed increased activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions.

Generally, it is recognised that heightened sensitivity to suffering makes us avoid such situations because it makes us uncomfortable. However, the compassion training seemed to strengthen the brain’s ability to sense the suffering of others without feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead, the compassion training oriented them to look at suffering not as a threat to their own well-being but as an opportunity to reap the psychic reward of connecting with other people and making them feel better.

We also need to recognise the critical role played by social relationships in improving our overall health and happiness.

The team consisting of Gre Cucci A, Fredrickson JR and Job R, in their editorial on ‘Advances in Emotion Regulation’ observe that when it comes to interpersonal relationships, emotions are the gift that nature gave us to help us connect meaningfully with others. They say “Emotions do not come from out of nowhere. Rather, they are constantly generated, usually by stimuli in our interpersonal world. They bond us to others, guide us in navigating our social interactions, and help us care for each other. We love our partner, we get angry with a friend, we feel sad for the loss of a parent, and so on”. Paraphrasing Shakespeare they say ‘Our relationships are such stuff as emotions are made of’”.

Whether we like it or not, our lives are inextricably linked to the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the day we are born we are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university without help. We live in a society where there is so much inter-dependence and inter-connection.

It is amazing that the 17thcentury philosopher Spinoza clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

It should therefore come as no surprise that how we lead our lives, and how the others that surround us manage their lives, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.


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