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Stanford University School of Medicine

A closer look at the role of coping mechanisms in regulating emotions

When feeling sad, stressed, anxious or angry, some of us may seek an escape, such as retail therapy, while others will simply think through the negative feelings. But are such differences in our responses tied to individual preference or intensity of emotion?

A new study from Stanford researchers and colleagues suggests it may be the latter. According to a release:

While many previous studies directly instructed people to employ different strategies and measured their consequences, the researchers wanted to know which regulation strategies people choose for themselves when confronted with negative situations of mild and strong intensity. In one experiment, participants chose how to regulate negative emotions induced by pictures that produce a low-intensity emotion and some that produce high-intensity emotion - a picture of a snake in the grass, for example, should give you low-intensity fear, while a picture of a snake attacking with an open mouth should be more intense. In another experiment, participants chose how to regulate their anxiety while anticipating unpredictable electric shocks, but they were told before each shock whether it would be of low intensity or more painful shock. Before the experiments, the participants were trained on the two strategies, distraction and reappraisal, and during the experiments, they talked about which strategy they were using at which time.

Results from both experiments showed that when participants were confronted with low-intensity negative feelings they preferred to think through the situation, telling themselves why it wasn't so bad. Emotions of higher intensity caused volunteers to employ a diversionary tactic to distract themselves from any unpleasantness.

Researchers hope the findings, which are slated for publication in Psychological Science, will help in understanding how to help patients suffering from depression and anxiety disorders in better regulating their emotions.

Previously: Some 4.9 million Californians need help for mental health and Why are women more likely to need mental-health help?
Photo by wearechapterone

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