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ERcontext Report Summary

Project ID: 704298
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ERcontext (How to deal with how you feel: Understanding and training context-dependent emotion regulation)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2018-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Emotion regulation refers to the variety of processes through which people try to influence their emotions, for example, by distracting themselves, rethinking the situation, or hiding how they feel from other people.

A large body of research has shown that effective emotion regulation is an important component of well-being. The ability to effectively regulate emotion has been linked with better physical and mental health, better social relationships, and even better memory (Gross, 2015), suggesting that effective emotion regulation is important in the broader community.

In addition, emotion regulation has importance to people with psychological problems. Difficulties with emotion regulation are thought to be a core cause of psychopathology, and in particular, of affective disorders like depression and anxiety (Kring & Sloan, 2009). Psychological disorders represent a major challenge globally, and particularly in Europe, where 27% of the adult population report that they have experienced a psychological disorder in the past year (World Health Organization Europe, 2012).

Emotion regulation is clearly important, but before this project was conducted, there were two key limitations in the existing research that needed to be addressed. First, most existing emotion regulation research characterized the strategies people used to regulate their emotion as being either “good” or “bad”. However, we believed that this is a simplification: we proposed that in order to understand effective emotion regulation, it was necessary to understand who is using what strategy when. Sometimes strategies that are effective in one situation are harmful in another situation. We suggested that it was important to better understand this variation, and to do this, we wanted to understand how context shaped the ways in which people regulated their emotion.

Second, most of the work on emotion regulation was based on laboratory experiments or questionnaires asking people what they usually did. These studies did not take the context into account. In the real world, the context you are in is constantly changing, and the emotion regulation strategies that work best are likely to change with it. Thus, we decided it was important to investigate emotion regulation in daily life. To do this, we used experience-sampling methods, sending people into the real world with smartphones and having them report back to us on what they were doing and how they were regulating their emotions.

Thus, in this project, we examined contextual factors, like who you are with, what your goals are, and the situation you are in. Our key objective was to understand how these factors shaped which emotion regulation strategies people used, and whether these strategies were effective or not.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

In this project, we conducted two large studies using experience sampling. Experience sampling involves giving people smartphones and then asking them to report on their real-life experiences across the day. In one study, we followed people in their daily lives for two weeks. In another study, we followed a group of university students who were receiving their exam results for the first time across nine days. This study allowed us to look at how people responded to one large emotional event. In addition, we used another dataset in which we asked people to report on negative events every day for a week, and a dataset in which we had details about people’s clinical symptoms. All this data collection allowed us to take a comprehensive look at how different contextual features could shape emotion regulation.

In these studies, we found that the way that people regulated their emotions changed a lot over situations. We found that three factors seemed to matter the most: why, when, and who.

First, motivational factors (the reasons why you chose to regulate your emotions) were important. In the past, researchers mostly assumed that people regulated their emotions to feel good. However, our research has shown that people regulate their emotions for lots of reasons, including to help perform tasks, for social relationships, for personal growth, and for learning (Kalokerinos, Tamir, & Kuppens, 2017).

Second, time factors (or when you regulated your emotions) were important. Emotions change over time, but previous research had mostly only looked at a single time-point. We looked across time and showed that people tended to use strategies that were ineffective in changing emotion earlier in an event, and strategies that were effective at changing emotion later on in an event. We also found that dwelling on your emotions was associated with stronger negative emotions later in the event than earlier on, and that rethinking your emotions was associated with lower negative emotions when used earlier in the event than later on (Kalokerinos, Résibois, Verduyn, & Kuppens, 2017; Résibois, Kalokerinos et al., 2017).

Third, social factors (who you were with) were important. The research we conducted shows that if you are in a positive situation and you feel happy, you should show your emotions, but if you are in a negative situation and you feel happy, it is better to hide your emotions. Hiding your emotions is usually a bad strategy, but our work found it can sometimes be useful (Kalokerinos, Greenaway, & Casey, 2017; Greenaway & Kalokerinos, 2017).

We have published five papers on these three factors, and we are continuing to use the data we collected as part of this project to better understand the complex process of emotion regulation. Our work has also suggested that an understanding of context might be a missing piece in people with clinical disorders, and could partially underlie the challenges that people with psychological problems have with emotion regulation.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The research before we began this project had laid the foundations for understanding emotion regulation, but did not have the complexity necessary to fully understand the multifaceted ways in which emotion regulation unfolds outside the lab. Our research showed that in daily life, the context in which emotion regulation is used changes often, and in response to those changes, people use strategies in many different ways. Our work suggests that we cannot understand effective emotion regulation without understanding context: who was there, why was emotion regulated, and when was the strategy used. We are currently working on interventions to help train people to regulate their emotions in ways that fit the context. We hope that these interventions will be able to help both people with clinical problems and people in the community.

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