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Healthy Emotion Regulation Can Reduce Anxiety, Study Finds

By Sara Battista, NAMI Communications Intern

Emotion Regulation

A recent study published this May in Emotion suggests that people’s attitudes when facing difficult tasks impacts their anxiety levels. More specifically, those who approach situations with a more proactive, positive outlook tend to experience less anxiousness.  

The past research mentioned in this study established a connection between regulatory focus, or people’s goal-orientation style, and anxiety. Generally, people fall into two categories—those who are oriented towards achieving positive goals, and those who actively avoid challenging situations all together. On average, people who rely on positive strategies when problem solving experience fewer negative emotions than those who shy away from confronting challenging situations. The present study addresses why people who use a more proactive approach to problem solving experience lower levels of anxiety than those who rely heavily on avoidance.  

To address this question, researchers from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigated the relationship between regulatory focus and emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to the ways in which people use coping strategies to remain stable during situations that they find emotionally challenging. Not surprisingly, using effective coping strategies to regulate our emotions when facing challenges is critical for maintaining mental health. Deficits in emotion regulation have been linked to internalizing a variety of negative symptoms, including anxiety.

Researchers focused on two emotional regulation strategies: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Both have been linked to regulatory focus in previous studies. Cognitive reappraisal occurs when people reframe the meaning of situations in order to view them more positively. Looking at an intimidating situation as an exciting challenge rather than a setback, for instance, is an example cognitive reappraisal. In contrast, expressive suppression occurs when people attempt to decrease the presence of negative feelings, and often occurs when people try to prevent themselves from worrying about a daunting situation. 

After evaluating questionnaires from 179 American men and women, researchers found that using cognitive appraisal to positively reevaluate how one thinks about anxious emotions and situations is a productive method for relieving symptoms of anxiety, while fixating on the negatives is ineffective. Furthermore, using suppression to simply avoid confronting negative feelings actually increases anxiety levels, as the root of the problem often remains unaddressed. 

The findings from this study hold significant treatment implications for those living with severe anxiety. While there are certain aspects of life which cause anxiety that we may not necessarily have control over, using emotional-regulation strategies is one way people can learn to be more adaptive in these stressful situations. As lead researcher Nicole Llewellyn said in an article on TIME.com, “You can’t do much to affect the genetic or environmental factors that contribute to anxiety. But you can change your emotion-regulation strategies.”

Despite the significant findings from this study, researchers still contend that the presence of moderate anxiety is not always negative. In certain situations, anxiety can work as a powerful motivating tool. Likewise, certain settings warrant careful monitoring of emotions, and deciding the best way to handle a stressful situation requires flexibility.

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