Emotions do not start and stop. Emotions are continuous interpretations of our world. In the 1970s Walter Mischel’s studies demonstrated our ability to control our impulses has a huge impact on our entire life. Children who were able to postpone gratification of one marshmallow for the reward of two marshmallows if they could wait fifteen minutes scored 200 points higher on their SATs a decade later. Self-control allows us to make responsible choices when faced with other appealing short-term options.
Trying to hide your feelings from someone is called expressive suppression. Studies show suppression is distracting because it requires having a conversation and hiding feelings at the same time. As a result, the blood pressure of the person suppressing feelings becomes elevated. Interestingly, the recipient of the duplicitous message also experiences elevated blood pressure because the expressed feelings don’t match the context. The cumulative effect of suppression overtime can be harmful to the cardiovascular system .
On the other hand, reappraisal involves changing your interpretation of the event. Dr. Kevin Ochsner, Columbia University compared the two strategies. “Emotional response suppression is like trying to close the barn door as an agitated horse is trying to get out, reappraisal is like calming the horse down so that it never wants to leave.” Suppression doesn’t divert the impulse; it only keeps an emotion from being expressed. Reappraisal changes how we see the event.
Neuroscientists can demonstrate different kinds of self-control use the same parts of the brain; whether the self-control is motor, cognitive, or emotional. This means when we are engaging in one kind of self-control, it is likely to have a broader effect than our intention. Putting feelings into words involves becoming conscious of our emotions. People may do this to gain insight. Another result is quieting the emotion. We can put the brakes on our emotional response by recognizing and labeling our feeling. Children who learn to “use their words” experience fewer emotional outbursts and also gain in popularity and academic achievement.
Rumination which can intensify our emotions results when we relive an emotional event without examining our interpretation. Physiologically an emotion lasts 90 seconds. After that you are choosing to stay in the loop. Recognizing emotional responses are essentially interpretations enables us to take control, to reappraise the meaning of the emotional event.
A reappraisal of acceptance can be used after the event. One method is to write down what happened and cross out everything that is not a fact. You’ll be surprised how much of your emotional response was self-induced. Using a reappraisal technique of distancing can help develop a new perspective. Rather than reliving the situation as yourself, relive it as a third person observer, or a fly on the wall. This technique significantly diminishes the negative emotion attached to the memory.
Knowing you can control your emotions comes with the responsibility to practice. Practicing reappraisal techniques can improve our physical and mental well-being.