Strong emotions, such as anger and fear, coincides with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, motivating adaptive survival activity. Along with anger and fear, our heart rates increase, our blood pressure rises, glycogenolysis (breaking down glycose to create immediate energy) ensues, gastrointestinal peristalsis (a normal digestive function) ceases. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, almost every living tissue of our body is awakened and prepared for action. In Barbara Fredrickson’s Undoing Effect theory, she proposes that positive emotions counteract the arousal, bringing the body back into healthy functioning states.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is the “nonspecific response of the body to any demand” (Tan & Yip, 2018). Hans Selye, known for his work on stress, wrote that “stress is an interaction between damage and defense.” He explains that the physiological response to stress has “toxic effects” (Selye, 1951). Physiological arousal to combat threats to our wellbeing is necessary for survival but comes at a cost.
Some researchers theorize that certain positive emotions play an essential role in “undoing” the physiological arousal caused by negative emotions. One of the functions, they suggest, of positive emotions “is to facilitate tension reduction” (Yuan, et al., 2010).
Silvan Solomon Tompkins (1911-1991), in reference to the stress-response, referred to “the-smiling-joy response” as a reaction to the decreases in the density of stimulation, or neural arousal, that accompanies strong emotion (2010). According to Tompkins, the reduction of stress causes the smile.
The undoing effect theory suggests that the smile relieves the tension. In other words, positive emotions put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system by hastening a return to homeostasis by “undoing, or down-regulating, of physiological arousal caused by negative emotions” (p. 467).
Health and Positive Emotions
The undoing effect is a subcategory of research that falls under a much larger, and almost universally accepted theory—positive emotions promote health. Evidence strongly suggests that positive affect (experiencing positive emotions) is associated with “a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease and is protective against the progression of cardiovascular disease” (Cavanagh & Larkin, 2018).
Positive emotions have been theorized to promote healthy functioning that spans across social, cognitive, and physiological domains. Barbara Fredrickson theorizes that positive emotions open up new paths for development in her Broaden and Build theory.
She explains, ” these broadening mindsets carry indirect and long-term adaptive benefits because broadening builds enduring personal resources, which function as reserves to be drawn upon later to manage future threats” (Fredrickson, 2001).
In explaining the undoing effect, Fredrickson wrote, “If negative emotions narrow the momentary thought–action repertoire and positive emotions broaden this same repertoire, then positive emotions ought to function as efficient antidotes for the lingering effects of negative emotions” (2001).
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “the broadening of attention and stock piling of resources contribute to wellbeing by improving future problem solving. We gather wisdom, build skills, and actively recover from demands” (2020).
Positive emotions is postulated to impact wellness across many plains and thus researchers are curious to uncovering the mechanisms behind positive emotions that may create the conditions that lead to health and wellness. Undoing effect is one of the theories seeking to explain why positive emotions improve health and promote overall wellness.
History of Undoing Hypothesis Effect of Positive Emotions
As early as 1988, Robert W. Levenson suggested that “the evolutionary meaning of positive emotions such as happiness might be to function as efficient ‘undoers’ of states of ANS arousal produced by certain negative emotions” (p. 23).
The actual theory of undoing affect can be traced back to a 1998 publication of research conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and Levenson published in the journal of Cognition and Emotion.
Fredrickson and Levenson present the undoing effect theory as: In there 1998 paper they presented two studies that utilized movies to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system response (fear and sadness) and then measured recovery time, assessing the impact of positive emotions on the speed of recovery. Fredrickson and Levenson’s findings supported the undoing effects hypothesis.
Action Tendencies and Emotion
An underlying concept essential to the undoing effect hypothesis is that negative affect evokes action tendencies. “Negative emotions that create urges for specific action requiring substantial physical energy (e.g., attack, flee) also produce heightened cardiovascular reactivity that redistributes blood flow to relevant skeletal muscles” (Fredrickson, et al., 2000).
Action potentials typically focus on an environmental threat that demands specific behaviors to eliminate the threat. Our emotional responses, hence, are survival mechanisms to combat specific threats.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, are “often characterized by relative lack of autonomic reactivity” (p. 238). The undoing effect hypothesis explains the survival benefits of positive emotions. Since they don’t elicit specific behavior through activation of the autonomic nervous system, what exactly do they do?
According to Fredrickson and Levenson, positive emotions have two primary purposes:
- First is the broadening effect. The broadening effect suggests that during positive emotions we gather enduring resources that contribute to resilience during more trying times.
- Second is the undoing effect. The undoing effect suggests that positive emotion states reset the body, bringing it back into a homeostatic balance.
Positive Emotions and Negative Emotions
In contrast to negative emotions, which promote survival in the moment by addressing specific threats with life preserving actions, positive emotions promote survival over the long run by building resources that could be drawn upon later. Positive emotions “can build a variety of enduring personal resources” (p. 239). The second purpose is the regulating influence positive emotions have on arousal, down regulating the autonomic nervous system, returning to a physiological homeostasis.
Negative affect floods the biological system with activating chemicals that evolved to prepare the body for threat. However, a prolonged, overabundance of those chemicals damages organs, leading do illness and disease. Murphy explains, “these physical changes have a cost, and when that cost exceeds our ability to process we become vulnerable to predispositioned diseases” (2021).
Selye explained that “the effects of stress depend not only on the magnitude and duration of the stressor, but also on the strategies individuals adopt to cope with it. (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle location 1,772).
The undoing effect is an unconscious mechanism that the body uses to reset biological levels by down regulating arousal through positive emotions.
Empirical Support for Undoing Effect
Early studies found substantial support for Levenson and Fredrickson’s undoing hypothesis. However , more recent studies throw some doubt on the theory. While positive emotions are empirically supported to be associated with health, the undoing effect may not be the cause for the association.
Many of the terms used in the early studies were broad and difficult to quantify. When researchers accounted for other confounding variables (resiliency, flourishing, appraisal style, etc..) only a few of the previous cited studies supported the undoing hypothesis. Most of the studies. “It is possible that these individual characteristics exert a more powerful effect on physiological recovery than state positive affect, which may explain why several studies either found partial support or failed to support the undoing hypothesis altogether” (Cavanagh & Larkin, 2018).
In a 2022 meta-analytic review of whether positive emotions facilitate autonomic nervous system recovery, the authors “found no support for the general undoing effect of positive emotions” (Behnke, et al., p. 14).
A Few Final Words On the Undoing Effect
Research still supports the broader category of positive emotions and health. Whether positive emotions are a cause or symptom to health is still under investigation. Perhaps, there is an undoing effect. It just isn’t the sole cause for or purpose of positive emotion.
We know some protect against intense emotions with escape through “gallows humor,” or a healthy laugh while in the depths of sorrow. Somehow these mechanisms protect against realities that overwhelm our threshold to process, and potentially causing damage to our bodies. Certainly, we should continue to promote positive emotions even if we aren’t completely certain of the process behind them. Undoubtedly, resetting our bodies to healthier states will create better health and promote a greater senses of wellness.
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