Every day we experience lots of different emotions. Those emotions can be helpful but they can also be harmful, getting in the way of our daily lives.
So says Elise Kalokerinos, a University of Newcastle lecturer in the School of Psychology. Elise is researching a thing called emotion regulation.
“I study how and why people regulate their emotions, trying to understand when things go wrong and how we can fix these problems,” she said.
“In my research, I often follow people in their normal daily lives over weeks using a smartphone app. I send people texts checking in with them during the day to see what they’re doing, how they’re feeling and how they manage those feelings.
“In this way, I can see what people do in the real world where they experience emotions that actually matter to them.”
Emotion regulation is how people deal with their feelings, she says.
“It most often involves making ourselves feel better when we feel bad – for example, cheering yourself up after hearing sad news, or trying to see the silver lining in a bad outcome.
“But we also sometimes try to make ourselves feel worse because that is sometimes useful to get things done – for example, making yourself feel angry before confronting a cheating partner, or stifling your laughter in the middle of a serious business meeting.”
In the past, researchers focused on the idea that there were “good” strategies that make people feel better and “bad” strategies that make people feel worse.
“But I’ve shown that whether a strategy is good or bad depends on the situation and your goals: strategies that we used to think were bad can actually be useful in some situations.
“On average, people tell us that they find it hard to manage their emotions, particularly in intense situations when they need to regulate the most. We know that problems with emotion regulation are associated with poorer physical health, lower mental wellbeing and problems in social relationships.
“We also know that emotion regulation difficulties are associated with psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. That means it’s really critical for us to understand these problems and how we can fix them.”
Elise’s research had focused on understanding when and why emotion regulation strategies were helpful and harmful.
“We find that strategies aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it depends on the context. The previous research has suggested that hiding your emotions from other people is bad because it interferes with social relationships.
“But we’ve shown that hiding your emotions can sometimes be useful. In one set of studies, we found that when you win at something, people like you better when you hide your emotions because you seem more caring and less arrogant.
“In another set of studies we found that, when your emotion didn’t match your situation (e.g. you feel happy but you’re in a sad situation), people like you better and are more interested in being your friend. This suggests that hiding your emotions can be a useful social strategy when used in appropriate social situations.”
The Good and the Bad
We tend to think about emotion regulation as being about feeling good and feeling bad.
“But in another study we found that, in their normal daily lives, people often use their emotions for other reasons: to get things done (e.g. playing loud music to pump yourself up before doing a work task), to help with social relationships (e.g. cheering yourself up so you seem more fun when meeting new people), to learn new things (e.g. reducing your negative emotions so you can focus), or to grow as a person (e.g. finding meaning in sad events).”
Elise is now working on trying to understand where we go right with our emotions “in the hope that we can start to use this information to do some skills training to help people become better at emotion regulation”.
“One skill I’ve been focusing on so far is emotion differentiation. Sometimes you feel awful, but you cannot put your finger on any particular feeling – you feel angry, sad and anxious all at once.
“At these times, you are showing low emotion differentiation. Emotion differentiation, or emotional granularity, is the ability to experience and label emotions precisely. That is, you can pinpoint exactly how you feel. In my most recent work, we find that people who are able to differentiate better between their emotions (across a year and during an intense emotional event) are more effective at managing their negative emotions.
“We’re submitting this work for publication, and we hope to follow it up with an intervention where we teach people how to specifically label their emotions (i.e. to say ‘right now I don’t just feel negative, but I feel angry’).”
What better thing to make light of than an actual light?
A Topics spy was cruising along Seaside Boulevard at Fern Bay when she spotted a street light in the middle of an intersection at a development.
As God said, let there be light.