How do we manage difficult emotions and direct them in a positive direction? Psychologists have identified different strategies people use for emotional regulation, some of which seem to work better than others.

Three of the strategies commonly mentioned are:

  • Reappraisal: reframing a negative situation in a more positive way
  • Acceptance: engaging with negative emotions and mindfully letting them run their course
  • Suppression: trying to dial down emotional responses

In a recent experiment, researchers in Germany tested these different emotional regulation techniques in a group of 29 people.

The researchers asked study participants to view a series of pictures intended to elicit feelings of sadness or anxiety. Participants were asked either to look at the pictures without trying to regulate their emotions, or to use one of the techniques above.

People assigned to use reappraisal were asked to reinterpret the meaning of the pictures in a way that wasn’t personal. The acceptance group was told to be mindful of any thoughts or emotions the pictures caused, and to accept those responses. Finally, the remaining participants were instructed to suppress their emotions.

To learn about how the emotional regulation techniques worked, researchers collected reports of people’s emotional experiences. They also took physiological measures of people’s reactions in the moment using EEG and skin conductance.

Looking at the results, the researchers concluded that reappraisal and acceptance were the strategies that most effectively changed viewers’ responses to the emotionally charged images. People who used suppression also had less extreme reactions relative to those who didn’t attempt any emotional regulation at all, but the effects weren’t as pronounced as for the other two techniques.

Clearly, this is a study on a relatively small number of people. However, the results are consistent with other studies on what coping strategies are associated with positive mental health outcomes, such as the ones I’ve written about here and here.

Overall, this latest study suggests that techniques like reappraisal and acceptance can change the way we respond to emotionally challenging events, and that, to some extent, consciously using these emotional regulation strategies might really make a difference.