Management of Emotions

Sometimes we have emotions, and sometimes emotions have us. Emotions, especially negative ones, can be particularly difficult to control. Nevertheless, we can try to inhibi the expression of negative emotions, especially under certain circumstances. Imagine that your school team just lost an important championship, and you are really unhappy , distressed, and in an irritable mood, angry at the referees and disappointed by your team. However, you have an important exam tomorrow , so you must inhibit your distracting unpleasant emotions and concentrate on studying. You can think of similar examples of emotional inhibition, such as controlling your anxiety or hiding the fact that you are disappointed. For example, have you ever received a gift you really didn' t like? Perhaps you suppressed your disappointment and replaced it with some positive false emotions, smiled, and said, "Thanks a lot; I really wanted one of those."

We all have to cover up such disappointments once in a while. But what about people who routinely suppress their emotions, who keep everything inside? What are the consequences of chronically inhibiting one' s emotions? Some theorists suggest that emotional inhibition leads to undesirable consequences. For example, Sigmund Freud (see Chapter 9) believed that most psychological problems were the result of inhibited negative emotions and motivations. That is, repression and the other defense mechanisms are ways of preventing an unacceptable emotion from surfacing and being directly experienced and expressed. The early psychoanalysts saw this suppression of emotion, the pushing of unacceptable desires or ur ges into the unconscious, as the root of all psychological problems. Psychoanalytic therapy , or the talking cure, was designed to bring unconscious emotion into conscious awareness, so that it could be experienced and expressed in a mature manner . Moreover, the therapeutic relationship was seen as a place to experience and express emotions that had long been inhibited. There are other therapies that might be called "expressive therapies" because their goal is to get the person to release inhibited emotions.

Other theorists see emotional inhibition more positively . From a developmental perspective, the ability to inhibit emotions is acquired at an early age, at around 3years, and is seen as a major developmental achievement. This is when children, though sad, are able to stop themselves from crying or when angry they can inhibit themselves from striking back (Kopp, 1989; Thompson, 1991). The ability to inhibit negative emotion is seen as a very useful skill to learn in childhood. Children need to learn to control temper outbursts, such as the ur ge to hit someone who takes a toy from them. We have all seen adults who don' t do a very good job of controlling disappointment or frustration, and their behavior (e.g., an adult temper tantrum) is often seen as childish. Some people are, however , very good at inhibiting negative emotions, even strong emotions. As an example, perhaps you have seen the Miss America pageant on television. At the end, the judges narrow down the contest to two deserving women. And, while the camera is on both of them, the winner is announced. The woman who does not win graciously smiles and looks happy and excited for the winner. One wonders, however, if the runner -up is inhibiting herself from displaying the emotions she is really feeling at that moment. Is she really so happy about the other woman winning? Is she inhibiting the expression of her deep disappointment and sadness over her loss?

What do research psychologists know about the ef fects of chronically inhibited emotion? Surprisingly , there have been only a few well-done

Which woman is genuinely happy? The woman on the left, Kelli Bradshaw from North Carolina, reacts to hearing her name called as the first runner-up (second place) in the Miss America Pageant in 1998. By implication, the woman on the right, Nicole Johnson from Virginia, simultaneously realizes that she is the next Miss America.

Which woman is genuinely happy? The woman on the left, Kelli Bradshaw from North Carolina, reacts to hearing her name called as the first runner-up (second place) in the Miss America Pageant in 1998. By implication, the woman on the right, Nicole Johnson from Virginia, simultaneously realizes that she is the next Miss America.

studies that directly address this question. For example, psychologists James Gross and Robert Levenson (1993, 1997; Gross, 2002) designed studies in which some of the participants were asked to suppress the expression of any emotions they were feeling while they watched a video designed to evoke the emotions of happiness (a comedy routine), then sadness (scenes from the funeral of a child, showing a distraught and highly emotional mother). Half of the participants were randomly assigned to the suppression condition, in which they were told, "If you have any feelings as you watch the [video,] please try your best not to let those feelings show . In other words, try to behave in a way that a person watching you would not know you were feeling anything at all." The other half of the participants were assigned to the no suppression condition, in which they were simply told to watch the video and were given no instructions to inhibit their emotions.

While the participants watched the videos, the researchers videotaped the participants, to determine how much the participants expressed their emotions while watching the video. The researchers also collected several physiological measures, such as those we discussed in Chapter 7. They also asked the participants to report on their feelings after each segment of the video.

Results showed that the participants who were instructed to suppress their emotions showed increased levels of physiological arousal, even before the video began, compared with the no-suppression participants. This widespread physiological arousal was interpreted as indicating that the participants were preparing for the ef fort necessary to suppress their emotions. The suppression participants also showed heightened physiological activity during the video, indicating increased sympathetic nervous system arousal, compared with the no-suppression participants. The researchers suggested that suppression of emotion takes ef fort and exerts physiological costs above and beyond the emotional arousal. The participants in the suppression condition showed less outward expression of emotion than did the control participants, as you would imagine. For example, the facial expressions of the suppression participants displayed little emotion, suggesting that they were, in fact, inhibiting the outward expression of their emotions, as instructed. As for the self-report, the suppression participants reported slightly less amusement in the amusement condition, but not less sadness in the sadness condition, compared with the no-suppression participants.

The researchers in this study suggest that hiding one' s emotions, particularly negative emotions, is not likely to influence how one actually feels. Moreove , the inhibition of emotion appears to cause some increased physiological arousal, primarily in the sympathetic nervous system, the system associated with the fight-o -fligh stress response. This study suggests that, at a physiological level, the inhibition of emotion is associated with a pattern of physiological arousal that looks much like a stress response. In other words, the inhibition of emotion seems to come with certain costs to the nervous system.

In addition to its ef fects on physiological arousal, the suppression of emotions also has other negative consequences. In a series of studies, Gross and John (2003) showed that the suppression of negative emotions, achieved by hiding one' s feelings, was also associated with diminished positive emotions later in the experiment. Moreover, these researchers present a questionnaire for assessing whether someone uses suppression as a habitual style of coping with negative emotions. Butler et al. (2003) also showed that people who suppressed their negative emotions had worse interpersonal relations and lower levels of well-being than the more expressive persons. They argued that, by not expressing themselves, suppressors disrupt what is a normal form of communication. This has an inhibiting ef fect on the formation of relationships and reduces rapport between people.

In an interesting line of research on emotion, Gross and colleagues (Ochsner , Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002) attempted to locate the emotional control center in the brain. They used fMRI to scan participants' brains while the participants tried to reinterpret a highly negative scene in unemotional terms. They found that several brain areas were associated with the successful regulation of negative emotions. These areas were mainly in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This frontal part of the brain, which is also involved in planning and executive control, appears to be active when people are controlling their emotions. Interestingly , this is the area that was destroyed in the case of Phineas Gage, discussed in Chapter 7. Recall that Mr . Gage, after his accident, had difficulty controlling his negative emotions, took up cursing in public, wa quick to anger, and frequently insulted people.

Sometimes it is necessary to inhibit feelings. Perhaps you do not want to hurt someone's feelings, perhaps you do not want to antagonize someone in a position of power, or perhaps you do not want to anger someone who is already acting aggressively (Larsen & Prizmic, 2004). For example, your boss may be upset with you for the wrong reason, and you may feel angry toward her . However, you cannot act out that anger because she is your boss and has a lot of power over you in terms of raises, workload, and working conditions. Quite simply , there are some situations in life in which it is wise to choose to hide feelings.

However, problems can arise when emotional inhibition becomes chronic, when a person routinely hides emotions. Someone who characteristically inhibits the free expression of emotion may suf fer the ef fects of chronic sympathetic nervous system arousal. For example, Levy and colleagues (1985) have shown that people who keep their negative emotions to themselves are more likely than expressive persons to have

Fmri Scan Examples Psychology
Example of an fMRI brain scan. Brighter colors, such as red, indicate areas with increased metabolic activity.

a higher mortality rate, a greater likelihood of recurrence of cancer after treatment, and a suppressed immune system. For example, cancer patients who express their negative emotions, and who emotionally fight their disease, sometimes live longer tha patients who accept their situation, inhibit their emotions, and quietly accept their treatment (Levy, 1990, Levy & Heiden, 1990).

The importance of emotional expression was illustrated in a study done by Noller (1984) on emotional expressiveness in romantic relationships. Noller found that, the more people expressed their feelings to their partners, the fewer problems they reported in their relationships. Knowing how another feels allows you to adjust your behavior accordingly. If your partner never expresses how he or she feels, then it is difficult to know what makes him or her happy or sad

Other studies suggest that emotional expressiveness is good for our psychological health and general adjustment. King and Emmons (1990) had participants keep daily records of how they were feeling each day for three consecutive weeks. The participants completed a questionnaire measure of emotional expressiveness. The researchers found that emotional expressiveness correlated with higher levels of happiness over the three weeks, as well as with lower levels of anxiety and guilt. A similar study by Katz and Campbell (1994) found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with higher self-esteem.

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