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Keep calm or blow a fuse? Studying emotion regulation

Friends have told me that I remain eerily calm in high-stress situations. The observation is somewhat unexpected since the same people would also describe me as being a bit of a stress case. I find this contradiction fascinating because, internally, I don't detect much of an emotional difference between ordinary and stressful situations.

So I was particularly interested to read an article published yesterday in the New York Times discussing emerging research on emotion regulation and what investigators are learning about the psychological tools people employ to manage their expressions in social settings. Benedict Carey writes:

Psychologists divide regulation strategies into two broad categories: pre-emptive, occurring before an emotion is fully felt; and responsive, coming afterward. The best known of the latter category, and one of the first learned, is simple suppression. First-graders will cover a smile with their hand when a classmate does something embarrassing; in time, many become far more adept, reflexively masking surprise, alarm, even rage with a poker face.

Suppression, while clearly valuable in some situations (no laughing at funerals, please), has social costs that are all too familiar to those who know its cold touch. In one 2003 Stanford study, researchers found that people instructed to wear a poker face while discussing a documentary about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made especially stressful conversation partners.

In another, published last year, psychologists followed 278 men and women as they entered college, giving questionnaires and conducting interviews. Those who scored highest on measures of emotion suppression had the hardest time making friends.

Stanford psychologist James J. Gross, PhD, discusses the consequences of becoming skilled at masking your emotions in the piece.

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