First, a brief intro to emotions. Emotions are multi-faceted and full-body experiences whose role encompasses the following:

  • Readying behavioral responses to an inciting event, whether occurring in the external environment or mental awareness
  • Guiding decision-making towards options most likely to be to the benefit of the organism
  • Enhancing memories relevant to the present situation as a resource to guide cognitive and behavioral responses
  • Facilitating interpersonal interactions

Emotions are generated outside awareness but are experienced consciously. They act as nonlinguistic cognitive and behavioral guidance mechanisms. Emotions are prelinguistic phylogenetically, that is, in terms of evolutionary development, and ontogenetically, in terms of an individual human’s development. They are also nonliguistic in language-using organisms such as ourselves. Some primary emotions, such as fear, are of such ancient origin that they arose during premammalian evolution. Other emotions are social or interpersonal ones, such as guilt, shame, pride, and envy that occur only in social species. Some emotions are strongly influenced by language, from messages received from others, one’s current thoughts, and memories mediated by or elaborated through language. So, there exist various emotion regulation strategies, both linguistic and nonlinguistic.

A common conceptual scheme is to categorize these emotion regulation strategies as described below. At the end of each description I note whether that strategy is more often used adaptively or maladaptively.

  • Acceptance: A nonjudgmental, present-focused awareness of events entering conscious experience. Often these events are conceptualized as natural, expected, coming in and going out of existence, and not requiring any type of cognitive, emotional, or behavioral elaboration or response. (Adaptive)
  • Escape-Avoidance: Avoidance of anticipated distress-causing situations and escape from current ones are strategies that provide short-term relief from anxiety and stress. However, since many situations reoccur regularly in life, escape-avoidance does not lead to learning and mastery over these stress-inducing situations and can lead to further sensitization, spreading to different related situations, and resulting in an ever-contracting environment in which the person feels comfortable. (Maladaptive)
  • Problem-solving: Conscious efforts to resolve current distressing situations. Often involves identifying the nature of the problem, making decisions, planning, undertaking various actions, monitoring progress, and adjusting based on those assessments. (Adaptive)
  • Reappraisal: Identifying the distress-causing biases in one’s beliefs and generating new more positive interpretations or perspectives about past, present, and future situations. Common biases include overgeneralizing, personalizing, and catastrophizing. (Adaptive)
  • Rumination: A perseverative form of thinking in which the focus is on aversive past, present, and future events but of a form that does not lead to effective problem-solving and instead to continued focus on aversive aspects of situations not under the person’s control. (Maladaptive)
  • Suppression: Conscious attempts to distract oneself from aversive thoughts and emotions by engaging in stimulating activities, including ones that can be high risk and otherwise maladaptive, such as, using drugs, watching porn, or gaming. However, some stimulating activities can be adaptive, such as, talking to friends, watching a compelling movie, or reading a book. (Often maladaptive)

When reviewing this list, it quickly becomes apparent that these regulation strategies seem to make most sense in terms of distressing emotions, such as anxiety and depression. This is fine when the focus is on mental health and on identifying adaptive and maladaptive strategies. There are many other emotions that are or may be noxious in more subtle and chronic ways, such as regret, resentment, jealousy, envy, schadenfreude, guilt, and shame, and may not be amenable to effective management through any of the above six regulation strategies.

If we return to the evolutionary perspective in which emotions are viewed as powerful nonlinguistic mechanisms that guide organisms in their engagements with their environments, it becomes clear that there is an additional emotion regulation strategy not included in the above six. That additional strategy is the exploration of the emotional response. This strategy makes use of acceptance – it is hard to explore something that is rejected, avoided, or suppressed. It also makes use of reappraisal but differs from it. Reappraisal is a common cognitive therapy technique in which the nature of one’s beliefs is challenged and, it is hoped, replaced by more ‘adaptive’ beliefs. Let me provide, as an example, coping with chronic envy.

One strategy is to go with it, keep feeling it, and perhaps even ruminate on it. Another strategy is to problem-solve it by getting what the other guy or gal has, and more. Presumably, if you’re on top, there is no one to envy. (If only it were so simple.) Other strategies are to suppress one’s feelings of envy and, perhaps, avoid the individual who triggers it. Another strategy still is to reappraise one’s envy and come to believe that earthly riches are not the measure of a person nor a route to happiness and significance. Another one is to accept that envy is a common and natural emotion that, just like all other emotions, thoughts, sensations, memories, and imaginings, arise and abide and fade away. Thus, there really is no need to dwell on feelings of envy for soon enough they will fade from attention.

Now, none of these strategies truly explore or interrogate the emotion of envy. This emotion should be accepted and be given its due. It means something, probably a lot. It arises within many people, but for particular ones it becomes maladaptive, leading to ill-considered choices and to ongoing stress, resentment, unhappiness, and so forth. Why not approach this feeling and understand, engage, and dialogue with it? One reason some patients reject CBT and related therapies is because they want to understand the origins and meanings of their emotions and behaviors rather than moving immediately to reappraising them, accepting them but otherwise not exploring them, or to problem-solving their way out of them. Such patients may be open to all these strategies, but first-things-first, they want to seek understanding.

There are psychotherapies that do encourage such explorations. They include the psychodynamic therapies and also several other ones, such as schema therapy and emotion-focused therapy. Now, an astute CBT therapist does allow, if not altogether encourage, a focus on the past and on origins and meanings of symptoms. But many times, CBT therapists don’t think of proceeding down this path of exploration, which does not jibe directly with the manual.

So, most of us seek to understand and make sense of ourselves and the world. Emotions are a power mechanism to guide us through our complex environments. The nature and circumstances of the emotions that arise can beneficially be explored by any person, and any mental health clinician can maintain the awareness of the importance of such exploration, irrespective of one’s theoretical orientation.

Thanks and take care.

Dr. Jack

Language Brief

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” – Helen Keller

“The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be.” – Alain de Botton

“Sometimes I think, I need a spare heart to feel all the things I feel.” – Sanober Khan

“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.” – Charlotte Brontë