There is wide agreement that emotional intelligence is linked to success in life. One component of emotional intelligence is emotion regulation – a set of conscious mental tactics that we can use to deal with emotional, stressful situations.
By better managing negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance, disappointment, regret and anger, we can improve both our wellbeing and performance at work.
Behavioural scientists led by Nadia Garnefski at the University of Leiden have gathered evidence for nine major cognitive coping tactics. These can be divided into helpful or less helpful strategies – with subsequent studies showing that the use of certain strategies may be somewhat protective against anxiety and depression.
There are four less helpful emotion regulation strategies:
- Rumination refers to a pattern of thinking excessively about a negative event or the feelings it elicits.
- Self-blame refers to a process of criticising ourselves.
- Other-blame involves attributing fault to either the environment or other people for events.
- Catastrophising involves dwelling on the worst aspects or possible disastrous consequences of a situation. For example, worrying that a disagreement with a colleague could lead to being fired from work.
By better managing negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance, disappointment, regret and anger, we can improve both our wellbeing and performance at work
There are five more helpful emotion regulation strategies:
- Putting into perspective involves realistically assessing a situation in relation to other, more significantly distressing circumstances or events.
- Positive reappraisal involves finding a positive meaning or looking for a beneficial outcome that might result from events.
- Positive refocusing refers to appropriate attempts to think about pleasant situations instead. For example, when waiting to hear the results of a job interview or a hospital test, it may be pointless to dwell overly long on what might happen.
- Acceptance involves acknowledging a difficult situation as opposed to denying its existence or wasting energy wishing that things had happened differently. A questionnaire measuring the use of this cognitive strategy asks respondents to indicate the extent of their agreement with the statement ‘I think that I must learn to live with [this situation]’.
- Refocus on planning involves thinking through next steps and practical actions for dealing with the distressing event or its aftermath.
People vary greatly in the extent to which they use the various strategies. Two individuals facing identical situations, such as job loss or ill-health, may react very differently: one may rely on less helpful strategies and experience elevated anxiety or depression; the other may use more helpful strategies and cope more successfully.
Putting into practice
Effort and intentional practice likely strengthen emotion regulation skills. For instance, researchers led by the University of Utah’s Eric Garland found that experimental participants who took an eight-week course on mindfulness experienced an uplift in their use of positive reappraisal, which boosted their mental wellbeing.
There are broad gender differences in the use of cognitive strategies. Researchers Kimberly Zlomke and Kathryn Hahn found that women reported using the positive strategy of putting into perspective more than men.
Less helpfully, women reported using rumination more than men. Men tended to blame others more than women. Women’s use of rumination suggests that they may worry more, harming their own wellbeing. In contrast, men tend to lash out more, potentially harming others’ wellbeing to a greater extent.
Gender differences do not mean that all women and all men are this way – these are only tendencies established within large samples.
There may also be age differences in emotion regulation. In a clever experiment, psychological investigators Susanne Scheibe and Fredda Blanchard-Fields put consenting younger (20-30 years) and older (60-75 years) adults through an emotional experience before testing their cognitive performance. Younger adults’ performance was disrupted more than the older adults’ performance.
This and other studies suggest that long-term practice may benefit older employees’ ability to regulate emotions. In turn, this may potentially benefit their capacity to deal with stressful, emotion-provoking circumstances.
In summary, studies suggest that we all have at our disposal at least nine mental strategies for dealing with distressing situations. By understanding the less helpful ways in which we and others may deal with emotionally-charged situations, we may begin to find more useful ways of responding.
We may also be able to support and coach colleagues through stressful times more effectively, so long as we do it with sensitivity and care. Ultimately, the combination of insight and action may benefit not only our work performance, but also our wellbeing.