anxious woman

Streamlined Analysis Can Help with Emotional Difficulties

Researchers from the University at Buffalo have boiled down to three categories the multiple ways people use to manage their emotions.

According to a news release from the university, the findings can potentially benefit researchers and clinicians trying to better understand and treat a range of psychological disorders, everything from anxiety to substance abuse, by streamlining assessment and giving people the tools necessary to more constructively work with their emotions.

“The groupings can be useful for clinicians who are trying to better characterize the nature of the emotion regulation difficulties their clients are having,” said Kristin Naragon-Gainey, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Psychology, and an expert on emotion and affect in mood and anxiety disorders. “Because it’s not always feasible for researchers to assess every strategy, they may now be able to narrow down from the larger group into the core underlying groupings.”

The findings were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Emotion regulation is a term that describes how people respond to and attempt to modify an emotional experience. Someone anxious about public speaking may use distraction to take their mind off a presentation in order to feel calmer.

“It’s about trying to change your emotions. What are you doing? Where are you? What is your goal?” said Naragon-Gainey.

Emotion regulation becomes problematic when emotions can’t be downgraded, like a lingering sadness that can’t be managed, or if the strategy is unhealthy, such as substance abuse.

“There are different motivations for substance abuse, but one common motivation is that it’s a means of emotion regulation,” said Naragon-Gainey. “If a therapist has a client who is using drugs or alcohol to change their emotions in some way this research may help identify if that client is lacking in other skills.”

For her analysis, Naragon-Gainey and a research team comprised of UB graduate students Tierney McMahon and Thomas Chacko, looked at hundreds of studies that reported correlations between different emotion regulation strategies to understand how they relate to one another.

Naragon-Gainey says people tend to use multiple strategies simultaneously. If one doesn’t work then they’ll move on to another. But it has been unclear to what extent these strategies are distinct.

Could the many strategies identified in a large body of research be synthesized into something much simpler and applied in a streamlined manner to psychopathology?

“What we found was that these strategies weren’t so highly related that they seemed redundant,” she said. “So people did fairly uniquely and specifically report on using certain strategies. Many of the strategies were related, but not everyone who used avoidance also uses rumination, for example.”

The researchers identified three core groupings to describe 10 strategies within each group.