Emotional regulation refers to the process of effectively managing and controlling our emotions. Effective emotional regulation is essential to maintaining overall well-being and positive mental health. Emotions arise from a compilation of external and internal events. Namely, and event occurs, we perceive the event, the event arouses feeling affect, we interpret the affect and the event together, giving it meaning, we experience an emotion, and, finally, we respond to the emotion. The process model of emotional regulation identifies different stages during the flow of events leading to a reactionary behavior where a person may intervene. In addition, within each stage, their is a family of strategies an individual can deploy to regulate the arising emotion.
Process Model of Emotional Regulation divides emotional experience into distinct stages where individuals can regulate emotional experience and expression.
The Four Stages of the Process Model of Emotional Regulation
The process model of emotional regulation suggests that there are several stages involved where we can intervene and effectively regulate arising emotions or maladaptive reactions to those emotions. “The process model of emotion regulation identifies five families of emotion regulation strategies based on their relation to the emotion-generative sequence of situation, attention, appraisal, and response” (Olderbak, et al., 2023).
These stages are interconnected, applying regulatory strategies during any one of the stages, changes the directory of the formation of the emotion as well as subsequent behaviors associated with the emotion. By employing effective strategies of emotional regulation, an individual may achieve emotional stability. Let’s delve into each stage of the process model:
The first stage in the process model of emotional regulation is the original event. While some of life is random, much of our encounters are directly related to our behaviors. Situation selection plays a crucial role in emotional regulation because it involves actively choosing situations or environments that are likely to elicit desired emotional experiences. We can “reduce the odds of ending up in a situation with undesirable emotional outcomes” (Koole, et al., 2016, Kindle location, 874). By intentionally selecting which situations we expose ourselves to, we can greatly influence our emotional state.
We must artfully structure our environments to best support our individual emotional needs. Situation selection prevents some stressful situations from ever arising. We can organize our finances so we don’t stress over not having enough money in our bank account to cover the rent. We can also arrange our time so we experience less stress to meet expected time constraints.
However, a lot of situation selection boils down to choices in the moment. we take a “preemptive action, such as actively confronting or avoiding” the situation immediately before us. (Olderbak, et al., 2023).
In essence, situation selection empowers you to take control of your emotional well-being by actively shaping your environment. By limiting the number of triggers, we can maximize our resources for managing emotions that naturally arise. By making mindful choices we limit stressful exposures, creating an atmosphere that fosters positive emotions, reduces stress over time, and promotes the overall emotional stability we seek.
One early opportunity for emotional regulation is situation modification, which involves altering the external circumstances or environment to better regulate our emotional responses. This stage is similar to situation selection but occurs after a situation has begun to form. At this point, we can actively step in and make changes. When it comes to situation modification, there are various strategies that individuals can employ to create a more conducive emotional atmosphere.
Improving Physical Environment
One such strategy is modifying the physical environment. For example, if you find that a noisy and chaotic workspace is causing you stress and anxiety, you can try rearranging your desk or investing in noise-cancelling headphones to create a more peaceful and focused environment.
Limiting Time with Toxic People
Another aspect of situation modification is making conscious choices about the people we surround ourselves with. Research has shown that our emotions can be heavily influenced by the emotions of those around us. If we find that certain individuals consistently evoke negative emotions or toxic behaviors, it may be beneficial to limit our interactions with them or seek out more positive and supportive social connections.
Other Situation Modifications
Additionally, situation modification can involve changing daily routines. We may find that we schedule some of our more difficult tasks when we are already worn down from the daily grind. Rearranging schedules may help us to manage emotions more effectively.
Some situations are not of our choosing. Sometimes we encounter unintended consequences of a behavior, or just something that we must do but we know will be difficult and give rise to uncomfortable feelings. In this stage, we may regulate emotion by directing “attention away from stimuli that give rise to undesirable emotion” (Koole, et al., 2016, Kindle location, 874).
One key attention deployment regulation strategy is distraction. We purposely focus on elements of an event that limit our arousal. This may require actively choosing elements that are emotionally neutral or positive to rehearse in our minds. However, distraction is also a common defense mechanism that we perform unconsciously. We may automatically disengage attention from emotion provoking stimuli. Sometimes, this serves us well. Other times, it may harm relationships and limit connection to reality.
Another common attention deployment technique is concentrating on the emotion producing stimulus itself. Instead of distraction from the stimulus, concentration involves a dispassionate examination of the stimulus. “Concentration refers to emotion regulation strategies that draw attention to the emotional features of a situation” (Webb et al., 2012). We focus on the feeling, the situation, and curiously examine the cause and effect. This process of examination often relieves the heightened arousal.
Attention deployment is a crucial skill, allowing for conscious focus on specific aspects of a situation, either to enhance or reduce certain emotional responses. By intentionally shifting attention, individuals can influence how they perceive and react to different circumstances.
It’s worth noting that attention deployment isn’t about denying or suppressing emotions. Instead, it offers a valuable tool for modulating emotional responses and preventing them from escalating to unhealthy or unproductive levels. By consciously choosing where to direct your attention, you can take control of your emotional state and respond in a more balanced and constructive manner.
The cognitive change stage involves modifying the way we perceive and interpret a situation to reduce the emotional impact of the situation. By challenging negative thoughts or reframing the situation in a more positive light, we can regulate our emotions more effectively.
For instance, people may reinterpret a potentially upsetting situation as being innocuous or assume the position of a detached observer (Koole, et al., 2016, Kindle location: 886).
One technique for implementing cognitive change is called cognitive reappraisal. We automatically look at situations and derive meaning. Our meaning often carry more emotional punch than the actual event. Cognitive reappraisals requires uncovering some of these unconsciously assigned meanings, reappraising the situation, and making adjustments. If our patterned thinking is a cause for emotional dysregulation, we should address the patterned thinking.
A common effective strategy to create cognitive change is through imagining alternative explanations of a situation. By considering different perspectives or reframing the event in a more positive light, we can shift our emotional response. For instance, if we receive constructive criticism at work, instead of feeling attacked or devastated, we can reframe it as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
Challenging Faulty Perceptions
Cognitive change also involves recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions – common thinking patterns that can lead to negative emotions. Examples of cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking (viewing situations in black-and-white terms), overgeneralization (drawing sweeping conclusions based on a single event), and mental filtering (focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive).
The final stage of the emotion regulation process refers to our reaction once an emotion has already emerged. Response modulation involves actively modifying our behavioral and physiological responses. “In this type of emotion regulation, people directly manipulate the physiological, experiential, or behavioral expressions of their emotions” (Koole, et al., 2016, Kindle location: 889).
One effective technique for response modulation is mindful breathing. Taking slow, deep breaths can help calm the body and activate the relaxation response, reducing feelings of tension and anxiety. This simple yet powerful practice is accessible to anyone, anywhere, and can be incorporated into daily routines to promote emotional balance.
Another technique worth exploring is meditation. By practicing mindfulness and focusing our attention on the present moment, we can develop a greater sense of self-awareness and gradually gain more control over our emotional responses. Meditation has been shown to not only reduce stress but also enhance emotional resilience and overall mental well-being.
Some other activities that assist with emotional regulation include nature walks, reading a book, attending a yoga class, or spending quality time with loved ones that foster feelings of peace and connection. Engaging in hobbies or creative outlets can provide a sense of fulfillment and enhance positive emotions.
Exercise also is an effective regulation technique. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals in the brain. Regular physical activity not only improves physical health but also has a profound impact on emotional well-being.
Researchers refer to the first four stages as antecedent regulatory processes that aim at regulating or avoiding the emotion early in its formation (Webb, et al., 2012). The final stage of response modulation is implemented to calm disrupting emotions. However, many of the practices implemented to regulate emotion during this stage can also be integrated into a healthy lifestyle as a source to build resources for managing emotions when they do occur.
Koole and her colleagues suggest that “the process model proposes that emotion regulation strategies are likely to be more successful and less effortful when they are applied earlier rather than later in the emotion generation process” (Koole, et al., 2016, Kindle location: 898). Accordingly, situation selection and situation modification are key stages to our emotional and mental health.
Other theorist suggests that approach strategies are more strongly related to mental health than avoid strategies (Olderbak, et al., 2023). Certainly, in some situations, avoiding may be the best course of action. However, if we engage in a life long pattern of avoidance then we will stunt growth that is only stimulated by manageable levels of stress. Like most psychological research, emotional regulation supports variety. Any single regulation technique taken to the extreme losses effectiveness and eventually becomes maladaptive.
A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic
It’s important to note that the process model of emotional regulation is not a linear process. Instead, these stages often interact and influence each other dynamically. Effective emotional regulation requires self-awareness, understanding of one’s emotions, and possessing sufficient resources and skill to intervene and manage when feeling affects interfere with life goals.
Koole, Sander L.; Van Dillon, Lotte F.; Shepps, Gal (2016). The Self regulation of Emotion. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.
Olderbak, S., Uusberg, A., MacCann, C., Pollak, K., & Gross, J. (2023). The Process Model of Emotion Regulation Questionnaire: Assessing Individual Differences in Strategy Stage and Orientation. Assessment, 30(7), 2090-2114. DOI: 10.1177/10731911221134601
Webb, T., Miles, E., & Sheeran, P. (2012). Dealing With Feeling: A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Strategies Derived From the Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 775-808. DOI: 10.1037/a0027600