To live in a state of mindcoolness, we have to be able to control our emotions and keep our mind cool when stress builds up and negative emotions arise.
Our successful emotion regulation has three major components:
- Mindfulness. We are aware that we are feeling something and clear about what we are feeling.
- Mindset. We accept our feelings and know that they will pass without us fighting them.
- Willpower. We stay focused on what we want to do and remain in control of what we are doing.
When psychologists measure these abilities, they use questionnaires like the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale. Yet we all know that self-reports are a poor source of scientific evidence because they depend on people’s self-knowledge (which may be faulty and biased) and self-evaluative honesty (which may be subject to social desirability).
If we want objective facts, we need objective measurements. But how can we objectively measure our capacity to emotionally self-regulate?
Scientists have proposed the physiological measure of heart rate variability (HRV). This variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats is a biomarker for overall health and risk of all-cause mortality. Higher HRV means: we are healthier, our autonomic nervous system can deal better with stress, our mind is cooler, we are physically fitter and better recovered, and we have more willpower.
In theory, if we are emotionally disturbed (stressed, angry, anxious, depressed, etc.) for too long because we fail to regulate our emotions, our HRV will drop. Conversely, if our HRV is high during rest, we will be better able to control ourselves when negative emotions come up.
In a new study, Visted et al. (2017) investigated whether the objective measure of HRV (in particular, HRV mediated by the vagus nerve) coincides with the subjective measure of self-reports. Their results were largely positive. Difficulties in overall emotion regulation and specifically in accepting negative feelings correlated with lower resting HRV.
Interestingly, this correlation was not just found in the lab, but also in a natural setting. 34 of the 62 participants left the lab with a little device that recorded their HRV for 24 hours as they went about their day in their natural environment. Their daytime (but not nighttime) HRV was indicative of how well they could control their emotions.
Therefore, HRV seems to be a psychophysiological marker of emotion regulation capacity.
Visted, E., Sørensen L., Osnes B., Svendsen J. L., Binder P.-E., Schanche E. (2017). The Association between Self-Reported Difficulties in Emotion Regulation and Heart Rate Variability: The Salient Role of Not Accepting Negative Emotions. Frontiers in Psychology 8(328), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00328.
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