Emotional Regulation – Definition

According to Professor James Gross, a leading authority on emotions, “Emotion Regulation refers to the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions” (Gross, 1998b p. 175). According to Eisenberg, emotional regulation involves the processes “of initiating, avoiding, inhibiting, maintaining, or modulating the occurrence, form, intensity, or duration of emotions and emotion-related physiological states” (as cited in Wegner, 2012).

In this process, the emotional regulation directs attentional capabilities, motivation levels and other behavioral responses whose goal it is to lead to biological or social adaptation and/or to achieve personal goals (Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004).

Emotional Regulation Strategies

In their article “Emotional Regulation: Conceptual Foundations” (Gross & Thompson, 2007), Gross and Thompson lay out the different strategies used by people to regulate their emotions in their everyday lives. The authors use an example of a man taking his son to his first haircut in order to illustrate and clarify these processes.

Before telling his son about the haircut, the father looks at several children-friendly barbershops.

1) He chooses a barbershop and takes his son. As they wait their turn, they notice their barber: a man with a big bushy beard and a scary-looking face. The terrified young boy starts crying.

2) The father asks if another, less intimidating barber is available, and agrees to wait. When the second barber arrives, the haircut begins. The boy is attentive and cooperative until he loses his patience and wants to leave.

3)Then the father suddenly “remembers” that his son’s birthday is coming up and distracts him with a conversation about the coming event and the gifts he is expected to receive. The boy is interested and listens to his father until the barber turns on the hair clipper. The scared boy starts crying and says that he is afraid of the noisy monster.

4) The father tells his son that the noise actually reminds him of their cat’s purr. The boy is persuaded. He calms down for several moments, until he notices the growing pile of hair on the floor, realizes it is his hair and starts crying again.

5) At this point, the father furiously tells his son that big kids shouldn’t cry, and that he has to stop immediately.

This story presents five strategies for emotional regulation, which collectively comprise the evolving modal model of emotion. The strategies in the barbershop example appear in accordance with the evolving sequence of the emotional experience, with each strategy corresponding to a different stage of the emotional response.

The following five strategies represent five families of emotion regulation processes. The first four are used before the person experiences emotional arousal, while the fifth strategy is most efficient after emotions have burst out (Gross, 1998; Gross & Munoz, 1995):

  • Situationselection
  • Situation modification
  • Attentional deployment
  • Cognitive change
  • Response modulation

1. Situation Selection

The situation selection strategy involves the active creation of a certain situation for the purpose of alleviating an unpleasant emotion. In the example, the father chooses a suitable barbershop in advance. People often employ this strategy when they decide on whether or not to go to an event that might affect them emotionally.

This strategy requires a full understanding of the situation and the ability to assess possible emotional responses. This may be a challenging task due to the considerable gap between real-time appraisal, appraisal in retrospect and future-oriented appraisal. Gross discusses Kahneman’s lecture from 2000, where he refers to the “experiencing self”, the “remembering self” and the many differences between the two. A similar gap exists with regard to the future-oriented appraisal, where people are unable to correctly predict their own emotional responses to future events (Gilbert et al., 1998). These biases make it much harder for one to make an educated and adapted situation selection.

Additionally, we are naturally inclined to choose an avoidant behavior which allows us to escape a powerful emotional experience (situation selection strategy – avoidance). However, this strategy does serve the individual’s best interest. As therapists we are aware of anxious people who, for example, avoid dealing with the source of their anxiety. Moreover, they have a tendency to overestimate the intensity of future anxious responses. It is therefore a common practice to use exposure in treating anxiety disorders. This allows the patient to deal with the avoided situation and discover that the catastrophic prediction does not come to pass.

2.Situation Modification

This is a subtler version of the previous strategy and, as its name suggests, it involves the modification of the situation. At this point, the situation has already presented itself and the next step is to find a way to ease the coping. In our barbershop example, the father asks to wait for the next available (and less threatening) barber. This highly effective strategy is commonly used by parents. When a parent/therapist helps a child build a castle from building blocks or solve a problem, the situation is modified not only by the adult’s active help, but also by their presence (especially when it is calming and accepting).

In this context, Nachmias and others (Nachmias, Gunnar, Mangelsdorf, Parritz & Buss, 1996) have shown toddlers coping better with stressful situations when their mothers supported them and provided specific intervention. However, a similar effect was also achieved by the mothers’ physical proximity to the children.

According to Gross & Thompson (2007), parents who accept and contain their children’s emotions and emotional expressions are in fact using the strategy of situation modification, which allows the children to better deal with their emotions and acquire long-term, positive skills of emotional regulation. This demonstrates the significance of parents’ emotional containing and emotional validation as a tool for enhancing their children’s emotional regulation capabilities.

It is important to remember that sometimes, it is precisely the efforts to correct a situation that bring about a new situation. In this case, it is no longer considered situation modification but rather situation selection. This illustrates the similarity between the two strategies.

3. Attentional Deployment

The first two strategies adapt the situation to the person’s needs, i.e. change the physical environment. The third strategy shows us that one can regulate emotions without changing the environment. Attentional deployment (AD) refers to the way people alter their attention in order to influence their own emotions.

AD is an extremely primary process which serves as an emotion regulation strategy starting from early developmental stages. This process is most effectives in situations that cannot be changed or corrected (Rothbart, Ziaie & O’Boyle, 1992). Using this strategy is, in a sense, a form of situation selection for the consciousness. In our example (phase 3), the father directs his son’s attention to the birthday gift, thereby distracting him from the distressing haircut. This strategy is very commonly used among parents (“Look, a bird”).

The two main sub-strategies are distraction and concentration. Distraction directs the attention to a different object or allows one to focus on different aspects of the same difficult situation. School-aged children already know how to reduce emotional intensity by thinking about something else instead of focusing on emotion-inducing situations (Harris, Guz, Lipian & Man-Shu, 1985). AD may also be a conscious and intentional process. In this case, a person may direct their internal focus from the distressing stimulus to thoughts or memories that make them feel good.

The second AD sub-strategy is concentration. According to Gross (2007), this process is similar to the process of distraction; however, it leads to focusing on the self- including one’s emotions and their consequences. AD has many forms, including the physical distancing of the attention (covering one’s eyes or ears) and redirection of the attention (distraction or concentration).

Zillmann (1993) claims that contrary to the common belief, people’s attempts to calm anger down (by counting to 10, for example) cannot really soothe anger. A distracting hug will pacify rage while it lasts, but the child will not be left alone for long before once again being overwhelmed by the emotion.

It may therefore be inferred that AD is not an effective way to prevent an emotional experience unless used at a very early stage of the emotional arousal (Gonen, 2003). According to Wegner and Schneider, unplanned distractions have been found to be ineffective for emotional regulation. They maintain that emotional repression enhances unpleasant emotions. It does not cure them or make them go away, but rather creates an obsession which grows out the attempts to avoid certain thoughts and emotions (as cited in Gonen, 2003).

While we agree with all the above points, we still believe that this strategy can be very effective when used in a conscious and intentional manner. For example, you may say “Let’s think of a song that we can sing to make the fear disappear”.

4.Cognitive Change

Cognitive change refers to the process by which a person changes the way they observe and evaluate a situation. In our example, cognitive change occurs when the father mentions that the clipper sounds like a purring cat (and not like a roaring monster).

This is where we enter the realm of cognitive therapy. It is the interpretation of the situation that determines the emotional response. A runner entering a competition, for example, may interpret her physiological and emotional arousal in one of two ways. Thinking that this is her body preparing for the competition will help her get ready. Believing it is due to stress and nerves, however, might impair her readiness for the competition.

Reappraisal (Gross, 2002) is a form of cognitive change based on altering a situation’s meaning. Applying the approach of Albert Ellis, a man may see a certain situation as intolerable, but if he reappraises ןא, he may decide that although the situation is unpleasant, it can certainly be tolerated (as cited in Dryden, 1999).

Children’s cognitive appraisal of emotions is significantly influenced by the way they understand emotions, including causes and consequences (Stegge &Terwogt, 2002). Comparative cultural studies show that children’s understanding of the appropriateness of a certain emotion and its expression are based on emotion (Cole, Bruschi & Tamang, 2002).

5. Response Modulation

Contrary to other emotional regulation processes, response modulation (RM) occurs at a late stage of the emotion generation process. RM refers to the attempt to influence a physiological, experiential or behavioral response in as direct a way as possible. Medication, exercise and relaxation techniques are several of the ways used for lessening physiological aspects of unpleasant emotions. Similarly, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and even food may affect an emotional opzione binaria response and its intensity. Another option involves restraint. In other words, the internal emotion may be intense, but the person chooses to smile or wear an indifferent expression so as not to disclose their true inner emotions. Like any other strategy, this coping method has advantages and disadvantages. There are situations where it is best to hide one’s thoughts and emotions. However, excessive restraint might lead to unhealthy emotional repression (Wagner, 2012).

In conclusion, the stages described by Gross & Thompson (2007) represent five different, naturally-occurring emotional regulation strategies which may also be employed for therapeutic purposes, as will be illustrated later.

In general terms, it seems that emotional regulation abilities improve when we find adaptive ways to express them. The development of language skills significantly increases children’s ability to understand their emotions, express them, think about them and manage them (Kopp, 1992).

In their study of strategic choices, Sheppes and others (as cited in Gross, 2007) found that in cases of low negative intensity, people preferred reappraisal over distraction. However, they chose distraction in cases of high negative intensity, as this is the only strategy which can successfully block emotional information.

The study also addressed the complexity of the reappraisal process. The results showed that when participants were presented with tangible solutions for both distraction and reappraisal, they tended to choose the strategy of reappraisal.

The third element examined in this study relates to motivational influences. The results showed that when participants were prepared in advance and knew that they will encounter the same overwhelming emotional stimuli more than once, they chose the strategy of reappraisal over distraction.

The practical conclusion arising from these studies (and applied in our protocol) is that motivation, useful tools and effective strategies for emotional regulation may be provided by offering the children tangible options, helping them develop their awareness and preparing them in advance for future emotion-triggering events.

Gross’s Strategies Through the Eyes of Barlow’s Unified Model and the Flexible Model

Situation Selection – This strategy allows the patient to avoid choosing personally difficult situations or choose enjoyable situations.

According to Barlow (2011), the excessive use of these strategies would increase undesired avoidant behaviors which will impede coping with the emotional difficulty.

We find that the strategy of situation selection can indeed be instrumental for children with emotional difficulties, at least in the first stages. A boy with anger issues, for example, can learn to recognize “dangerous” situations and know when to avoid them, at least until he is able to use strategies that are more cognitive in nature. In other words, viewing this strategy as an effective tool or as an avoidance booster also depends on the type of difficulty that the child is dealing with. Indeed, in cases of anxiety, it is best to try and strengthen the child’s coping through exposure and by deliberately choosing the threatening situation instead of avoiding it.

Situation Modification – This strategy is not a means for avoidance. Rather, it eases coping by affecting the emotional intensity through change.

According to Barlow, using “safety signals” can temporarily reduce fear and allow the sense of safety in fear inducing situations. Nevertheless, this is not an effective solution in the long run, as people cannot hope learn how to cope with threatening situations while their dependency on safety signals prevents them from being exposed to the unpleasant emotion.

Contrary to this approach, we do encourage the use of what we call “safety pins” in the Flexible Protocol. The treatment is aimed at children, and we do believe that coping with the emotional difficulty is hard enough as it is. A safety pin is, as its name suggests, meant to be used as a provisional safety solution (the garment is not really repaired, but rather held together momentarily by a pin…). The very connotation of the safety pin may prompt a discussion about temporary fixes that are attached to our clothes (i.e. our emotions). We may therefore use these pins as a transitional phase which will be reinforced as well. However, it is important to stop using this technique in a gradual manner.

Attentional Deployment – Distraction and concentration seem to serve as an effective strategy for emotional regulation. This strategy may be considered adaptive when used in moderation and in appropriate situations.

According to Barlow, prolonged reliance on attentional deployment may perpetuate symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders. It is important to keep in mind that people who choose AD are not dealing with their emotions.

There is always room for distraction or concentration in the protocol, as long as the child using the strategy is aware of his/her own situation. We encourage using attentional deployment for emotional moderation in times of high intensity, and returning to the emotion at a calmer time. High emotional intensity does not allow children to remain within the emotional experience and so they turn to inappropriate behavior (running away or violent behavior, for example).

Working with the protocol allows children to work on their emotions according to the timing and pace best suited to their needs.

Reappraisal – This technique is preferred by therapists, as it involves cognitive deliberation as a means for coping with a difficulty rather than avoiding it or running away. It is also a very efficient strategy, if used at a stage where it is still possible to stop for a moment and reappraise the situation. Additionally, it is one of the main elements of therapeutic intervention according to Barlow’s unified model.

Reappraisal is viewed as a highly significant strategy in our protocol as well. However, it is important to consider the child’s age, as young children cannot use this technique effectively. We have emphasized several different forms of reappraisal: building thought flexibility, examining different perspectives, pros and cons, etc. Several different studies have shown that this technique is an effective approach in medium intensity situations, while in occasions of high intensity, the most efficient technique is distraction (Sheppes & Levin, 2013).

Response Modulation – This is the only strategy, according to Gross, which is efficient during an emotional outburst. It is an attempt to change a response in a behavioral or physiological manner.

According to Barlow, this technique prevents us from becoming familiar with the emotional experience, thus perpetuating the problem. Barlow points to mindfulness as an effective technique that does not divert the patient from coping with the emotion. In this method, patients may observe their own emotions without escaping them or clinging on to them.

The Flexible Protocol calls for the use of different methods for response regulation, as long as the children using them receive proper instruction and are conscious of the process. For example, different types of relaxation techniques, such as breathing and guided imagery, may all be considered as ways to regulate emotions. We instruct the children on how to use them in order to cope with their unregulated emotions.