All self-control starts with our ability to control our attention: no focus, no willpower; no willpower, no self-control. This is why the skill of mindfulness, developed through daily meditation, is key for controlling our emotions.
According to science, one of the most effective emotion regulation strategies is reappraisal, which involves a conscious cognitive change, a little shift in mindset, for example:
- By seeing obstacles as challenges, we reappraise the situation.
- By looking at the bright side or the bigger picture, we reappraise the situation.
- By not taking a mean face or a hurtful comment personally, we reappraise the situation.
- By reminding ourselves of Stoic or Taoist principles, we reappraise the situation.
- By being grateful, we reappraise the situation.
All such thinking helps us to stay in a calm and collected state of mindcoolness. But how does this relate to attention?
In general, anxious people show biased attention to threat-related information, drug addicts show biased attention to substance-related information, and depressed people show biased attention to negativity-related information: they are quicker to look at and slower to look away from what scares, tempts, or depresses them. What these people need is reappraisal, because it helps them to alter their attentional biases to emotional information.
In an experimental study by Kim et al. (2016), participants watched a violent video clip that elicited negative emotions. Those who reappraised the situation by imagining the scenes as less personally relevant or more physically distant in order to down-regulate their emotional reactions were less attentionally biased to look at angry faces afterwards. The same was found for people who habitually used the reappraisal strategy in their everyday life: they were slower in orienting their attention toward angry faces.
This suggests that reappraisal, like meditation, is effective for emotion regulation by virtue of managing attention. Therefore, the more we practice reappraisal in our daily lives, the less sensitive we become to negative emotional stimuli or information. This is how studying practical philosophies like Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and—I dare advertise my book again—Willpower Condensed can even by itself strengthen our emotional self-control skills.
Kim, S. A., Kim, H., and Kim, S. H. (2016). Reappraisal Modulates Attentional Bias to Angry Faces. Frontiers in Psychology 7(1841), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01841.
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