Most of us haven't heard that admonition since our last childhood tantrum. Nonetheless, it's something we often tell ourselves, consciously or not, as we deal with life's daily ups and downs. The ability to regulate one's emotions is critical to successfully interacting with others. How we go about achieving that self-control has an equally important effect on our own well-being.
Now, researchers at Stanford have conducted the first-ever brain imaging study that directly contrasts two different techniques for emotion regulation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to observe neural activity in people's brains as they employed each of the two methods in coping with one of the most visceral of human emotions: disgust.
The researchers found that while one method, cognitive reappraisal, reduced the intensity of negative emotions the participants experienced when exposed to videos of disgusting images, the other, expressive suppression, actually increased it.
Philippe Goldin, a Stanford research associate in psychology and the lead author of a paper describing the research in the March 15 issue of Biological Psychiatry, said that the value of the findings lies in "knowing what are the different choices that I have in working with my emotions, and what are the different types of impact and outcome, both internally and interpersonally, for each of these strategies."
"Cognitive reappraisal is similar to one of the skills we teach in cognitive-behavioral therapy," Goldin said. "It's using thinking strategies to modulate emotional reactivity by changing the meaning of something." For example, if you were watching a doctor stitch up a wound in someone's arm, rather than just being horrified by all the blood, you might instead focus on the fact that the patient was being helped and would recover.
The other technique, expressive suppression, does not involve rethinking what you are e
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