There are two types of emotion regulation:
- implicit regulation: automatic strategies
- explicit regulation: conscious, effortful strategies
What neuroscientists (e.g., Etkin et al. 2015) describe as implicit emotion regulation is equivalent to defense mechanisms (Rice 2016)—manipulations and distortions of reality in order to defend against anxiety, to protect one’s ego. Some common examples are:
- “I fear nothing whatsoever.” (denial)
- “In my mind I’m a fearless superhero.” (fantasy)
- “Haha, look at him, look at him, he’s such a pussy!” (projection)
- “I’m not afraid, I just don’t want to because…” (rationalization, making excuses)
- “Let’s look at this objectively: What happens in the brain when you’re afraid?” (intellectualization)
Since ego defenses are largely unconscious, automatic, and don’t involve a will, I won’t discuss them any further but will focus on explicit emotion regulation (= conscious, volitional regulation) instead.
First, watch this video to learn what emotions are and how their regulation works:
Are you done watching the video? Great, then let’s move on!
As you’ve learned in the video, you can control an emotion at each of its three sequential steps (Etkin et al. 2015):
- You can direct your attention away from the situation. (attentional deployment)
- You can change how you judge the situation. (cognitive change)
- You can change how you respond to the situation. (response modulation)
Therefore, if you suffer from anxiety (let’s say, at the thought of public speaking), you can, for example,
- direct your attention at the content of your talk or listen to engaging music (distraction),
- appreciate your nervousness as an energetic fuel that vitalizes your talk (reappraisal), or
- slow down your breathing and keep a cool face (expressive suppression).
Studies have shown that distraction seems to be the most effective of these methods (e.g., Smoski et al. 2014), probably because this strategy is implemented earliest in the emotion sequence. Distraction is specifically effective in the short-term and it even works with intense emotions (Sheppes et al. 2014, Shafir et al. 2015). The problem with distraction, however, is that it’s not a sustainable way of mastering your emotions. If you never face what triggers your anxiety, you don’t improve yourself as a person.
Reappraisal is best for controlling emotions in the long-term (Shafir et al. 2015). To reappraise an emotional situation means that you reinterpret it in a more positive light:
- “Look at the bright side!”—that’s reappraisal.
- “Look at the bigger picture!”—that’s reappraisal.
- “Everything that happens to you is divine necessity”—that’s reappraisal (an abstract, Stoic version of it).
- “Your fear or depression indicates an awesome life challenge that will strengthen your character”—that’s reappraisal (based on a growth mindset).
Reappraisal is a mindset change. You usually don’t need much self-control to change your attitude. Still I promised you in the title that this article is about willpower, didn’t I? So here it is: Willpower is the fuel for expressive suppression. If you want to suppress your anxiety and its bodily, behavioral symptoms, you need to exert willpower. For example, instead of looking anxious, you force yourself to rearrange the tension in your face to make it look calm and collected. But is this a good strategy? Studies (e.g., Cutuli 2014) say no:
- Suppressing emotion impairs cognitive functioning (Cheng et al. 2009, Richards 2004).
- Suppressing emotion is negatively related to well-being (Gross & John 2003).
- Suppressing emotion has negative social consequences: it reduces rapport, disrupts communication, and inhibits relationship formation (Butler et al. 2003).
Could willpower be something like a last resort, a force to use in an emergency? Even though it may help you somewhat to force your body to calm down when you feel anxious, suppression is, in fact, the least effective technique, as it targets the last part of the emotion sequence. Also, if you can think of a situation that you’d label as an “anxiety emergency,” then you definitely don’t want to hope for willpower. Rather, apply a long-term strategy! Toughen up and expose yourself to that very situation that causes your anxiety:
- If public speaking makes you anxious, go outside and talk to strangers in public.
- If hitting on a sexy lady makes you anxious, go outside and talk to hot chicks.
- If heights make you feel anxious, go bungee jumping.
- If physical confrontation makes you anxious, go spar in a boxing gym.
You don’t need to chronically exhaust your willpower to do those things. Just change your attitude and reappraise those situations!
Butler, E. A., Egloff, B., Wilhelm, F. H., Smith, N. C., Erickson, E. A., Gross, J. J. (2003). The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion 3(1), pp. 48-67.
Cheng, L., Yuan, J.-J., He, Y.-Y., Li, H. (2009). Emotion Regulation Strategies: Cognitive Reappraisal Is More Effective than Expressive Suppression. Advances in Psychological Science 17(4), pp. 730-735.
Cutuli, D. (2014). Cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression strategies role in the emotion regulation: an overview on their modulatory effects and neural correlates. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 8, 175.
Etkin, A., Büchel, C., Gross, J. J. (2015). The neural bases of emotion regulation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, pp. 693-700.
Gross, J. J., John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85(2), pp. 348-362.
Rice, T. R. (2016). Commentary: The Neural Bases of Emotion Regulation. Frontiers in Psychology 7, 476.
Richards, J. M. (2004). The Cognitive Consequences of Concealing Feelings. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13(4), pp. 131-134.
Shafir, R., Schwartz, N., Blechert, J., Sheppes, G. (2015). Emotional intensity influences pre-implementation and implementation of distraction and reappraisal. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 10(10), pp. 1329-1337.
Sheppes, G., Brady, W. J., Samson, A. C. (2014). In (visual) search for a new distraction: the efficiency of a novel attentional deployment versus semantic meaning regulation strategies. Frontiers in Psychology 5, 346.
Smoski, M. J., LaBar K. S., Steffens, D. C. (2014). Relative effectiveness of reappraisal and distraction in regulating emotion in late-life depression. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 22(9), pp. 989-907.
The picture in this post has implemented “fear3815.jpg” from this source.
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- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)
- How Scientists Measure Emotion Regulation
- How to Alleviate Stress: Physical Exercise vs. Biofeedback vs. Meditation
- To Control Your Emotions, Control Your Attention
- What to Do about Public Speaking Anxiety