For many people, emotions feel as if they come and go as they please. And while positive emotions, such as joy, gratitude, or interest, are often fleeting, unpleasant emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness, often have a prolonged and intense hold on us.
For those of us with emotional disorders such as depression, unpleasant emotions are often excessive or overwhelming. Or we feel no emotions at all.
While unpleasant emotions can be helpful in particular contexts – fear can lead us to avoid dangerous situations; anger can help us overcome obstacles or fight for causes we care about – when these emotions are disproportionate to a situation, they can be harmful. Excessive fear can lead to anxiety, which may cripple one socially or at work; and uncontrollable anger may lead us to harm ourselves or someone we care about.
If you find it difficult to cope with unpleasant emotions, research suggests it may be due to the emotion regulation strategies you currently choose.
Emotion Regulation Strategies
A growing body of research supports the notion that wellbeing is in large part influenced by the extent to which people can successfully regulate their emotions.
Emotion Regulation: The process by which individuals influence the onset, course, and experience of their emotions in order to respond to various challenges posed by the environment.
Emotion regulation strategies alter the frequency, intensity, duration, and stability of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Emotion regulation is the process by which people can keep calm while being provoked, appear enthusiastic while attending painstakingly boring events, and stifle laughter during a serious work meeting.
While certain emotion regulation strategies are adaptive, others can become maladaptive because they maintain, or increase our risk of, emotional disorders.
Depression and Emotion Regulation Strategies
A 2017 review published in the Clinical Psychology Review investigated emotion regulation strategies used by adults with major depressive disorder.
The review found that although depressed individuals can effectively use emotion regulation strategies, they do not select the the most helpful strategies.
Compared to people who had never had depression, people with depression showed:
Less cognitive reappraisal; and
Less acceptance of emotions.
Three Strategies to Manage Sadness & Other Unpleasant Emotions
The results of the review suggest that if you feel your mood deteriorating, try these three emotion regulation strategies:
1. Reduce Rumination
Rumination: Repeatedly focusing on the causes, consequences and symptoms of depression, without taking action to alleviate these symptoms.
Healthy distraction can effectively break the cycle of rumination when an activity is engaging and positive.
To stop ruminating:
Notice you are ruminating and tell yourself that it isn’t helpful.
Distract yourself: Read a book, exercise, watch a movie, talk to a supportive friend.
“Action is the antidote to despair.”
– Joan Baez
2. Use Cognitive Reappraisal
Cognitive Reappraisal: Reinterpreting thoughts or situations in order to change the intensity and/or duration of emotional experiences.
Cognitive reappraisal involves changing how you are thinking about a situation in order to alter its emotional impact.
Say you are going for a job interview – an often emotion-eliciting situation. To use cognitive reappraisal throughout this process you may:
Prior: think about the interview as an opportunity for you to evaluate the company - rather than focusing on the company evaluating you.
In the moment: interpret the interviewer’s tired face as a sign that they’ve had a long day of conducting interviews, rather than thinking about the possibility that they are unimpressed with you.
After: reflect on the interview as a learning opportunity, rather than regretting things you said.
Changing your thinking can help manage any stress or anxiety felt before or during such emotion-eliciting situations, and improve your mood afterwards.
3. Practice Acceptance of Emotions
Acceptance of Emotions: Experiencing emotions in the present moment and observing them in a non-judgemental way.
Psychological acceptance is a strategy emphasised in a number of psychological therapies (eg., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and is a core part of mindfulness. When using this psychological technique, psychologists work with people to help them observe and respond to how they are feeling in a non-judgemental way.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
– The Serenity Prayer
Acceptance is based on the idea that a lot of our psychological suffering is a result of our struggle with painful emotions.
For example, a person who is feeling sad may respond to that sadness by judging that mood as being ridiculous; criticising themselves for being weak; ruminating about the reasons why they are sad; or engaging in unhealthy or even harmful behaviours to try to escape the feeling of being sad. All of these behaviours increase the risk that they will spiral into further depression.
Instead, accepting painful or unpleasant feelings such as sadness, means opening up and making room them. Acceptance is about observing the emotion without judgement or criticising yourself, and letting it be there, simply because it is there. It means bringing an attention of openness and compassion to the experience of being sad while allowing the sadness to be present. Acceptance does not mean that you like those feelings, or that you want them to be there. It means accepting that - in this moment - they are there.
The purpose of acceptance of emotions is to encourage us to make more adaptive responses to these feelings: to address our problems; engage in healthy activities that lift our mood; or simply allow emotions such as sadness to run their natural course without reacting to them in ways that may cause us longer-term harm.
While accepting emotions may seem simple in theory (or not!), it is a skill, and many people find this practice very difficult... because it is. There is a reason people manage feeling such as sadness with alcohol, drugs, food or other ways that can prove unhelpful or damaging in the long-term. Accepting difficult emotions is a process, not an outcome, and it takes practice.
A simple strategy to help accept emotions is to first acknowledge a difficult feeling is there. Silently say to yourself “here’s the feeling of anxiety” or “here’s the feeling of sadness”. In addition, mindfulness of emotions exercises have been designed to help improve this emotion regulation strategy. To try an exercise click here.