Richard Lopez, Bard College – Emotion Regulation Strategies: Know Your Toolbox

Our emotions run the gamut, and we need a toolbox of strategies to cope.

Richard Lopez, assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, explains how to use these tools.

Professor Richard Lopez is an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, where he teaches courses on the science of goal pursuit, social neuroscience, and statistics. He also directs the Regulation of Everyday Affect, Craving, and Health (REACH) Lab. His research seeks to address questions such as: how can we better understand our cravings and emotions—as we experience them in our daily lives? And: how do our goals and motivations influence the extent to which we keep our desires and feelings in check?

Emotion Regulation Strategies: Know Your Toolbox

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Our rich and complex emotional lives are a defining feature of what makes us human. Experiencing the full breadth of human emotion is often healthy and adaptive for our species, but there are times when we may be motivated to change, or regulate, our emotions in the service of other goals we may be pursuing. In my lab, we study various emotion regulation strategies and their effectiveness when people apply them in their daily lives.

One emotion regulation strategy, cognitive reappraisal, involves changing the impact of an emotion-eliciting stimulus—whether it be a situation, a person, or a self-generated thought—to alter its impact or change behavior. There are a variety of reappraisal tactics, but one that has been well-studied is psychological distancing. This involves putting a bit of distance between yourself and your emotions, which provides time and perspective to reassess how you’re feeling, and studies have shown it works well in many contexts. Another regulation strategy, suppression, involves putting on a “poker face” and not showing the world what you’re feeling inside, good or bad. This strategy can work in a pinch, especially if you want to be polite and save face in the moment, but research in my lab and others suggests that if it’s a person’s preferred, go-to strategy, especially when facing difficult life stressors, such as the loss of a loved one, it can backfire and negatively impact physical and mental health.

Current theorizing about emotion regulation strategies indicates that, in terms of effectiveness, no one strategy wins out across the board. Rather, we may be best served by a toolbox of strategies that we learn to apply flexibly, depending on the intensity of our emotional states, the situations we find ourselves in, and other factors. One can think of this as a kind of “meta-strategy,” if you will, which arises from knowing what’s in our emotion regulation toolbox­. 

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