Do you know someone who tends to focus on the negative and bottle up emotions? A new study by NARSAD Grantee Florin Dolcos, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign (UIUC), reveals that the way a person regulates emotions can influence their susceptibility to anxiety. The findings, published online in May 2013 in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, suggest that although we may not control when and why bad or good things happen to us, we can control our emotional response strategies that can contribute to how much anxiety we feel.
Dr. Dolcos, assistant professor, psychology, UIUC, and team asked 179 healthy men and women about how they handled their emotions and to what extent they had anxiety in different situations. The team’s analysis found that people who employed an emotional strategy called “reappraisal,” which involves reframing or focusing on the positive aspects of problems or “seeing a glass half full,” showed less anxiety then those participants who suppressed their emotions.
Some degree of anxiety is normal in everyday life and helps us function under pressure, but long-term and severe anxiety can be debilitating. The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 18% of U.S. adults experience anxiety.
Previous studies showed that people who tended to focus on the negative, especially during times of stress, were more likely to be affected with depression and anxiety. Most studies were of women because women are more likely to be diagnosed with the types of emotional disorders that result from an increased concentration on negative emotions. While earlier studies did not explain how a difference in focus translated to behavioral changes, the new study elucidates the emotional strategies that can regulate anxiety.
These new results complement findings from the team’s April 2012 study, which also received Brain & Behavior Research Foundation support. The 2012 project looked at how people process the emotional landscape of their lives and the way that they respond to it based on gender, personality and other conscious and subconscious factors that regulate feelings. They found that men and women who were more outgoing and assertive tended to remember a greater number of positive life events than the negative. Men who engaged in reappraisal behavior by thinking differently about their memories were able to focus on positive memories. Men who tried to suppress their negative emotional responses showed no difference in positive or negative memory recall. Women who tended to suppress their negative emotional responses demonstrated a much greater focus on negative memories with a negative impact on mood. The results emphasize that many factors affect how a person recalls memories and how these memories impact emotional state.
Together, these findings suggest that the way we regulate our emotions—such as focusing on positive memories, planning ahead and responding positively to a problem as opposed to ignoring and suppressing our feelings—can influence how much anxiety we experience.