Want to regulate your emotions? Try bringing them to life, says study

Making your emotion into a character or person can help you detach from the emotion. (pic credit :Andrii Shevchuk)

I often recommend watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out to people who feel overcome by their emotions or have trouble regulating them. The movie largely takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl who moves cities with her parents. She experiences a range of emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that are depicted as characters. Joy was originally in the driving seat when the girl was born, but other characters/emotions take over at different stages of the story – with comic and dramatic effect.

Story aside, I regard Inside Out as a helpful metaphor for mental health. It shows that we can experience a range of emotions without having to become any of them. It also shows that we can have a relationship with all of our emotions, and it’s not necessary for us to identify with any one in particular. You can change your language to say that you’re having an angry moment (when Anger is in the driving seat, for example) rather than saying that you’re an angry person. That can feel liberating.

A new study takes this one step further and suggests that the act of making your emotions into a character or person, just as Inside Out did, can help you regulate and detach from the emotions (especially the negative ones). Researchers at the University of Texas Austin found that ‘anthropomorphic thinking’ – which means bringing an emotion to life, or thinking of an emotion as a person – can help you regulate that emotion.

They tested out anthropomorphic thinking by asking survey participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, with one group asked to bring sadness into life as if it were a person. They were then asked to rate their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven. Findings showed lower levels of sadness the group that wrote about the emotion as a person. The effects were heightened if the emotion-as-a-person was perceived to be a completely separate, independent person.

The researchers said: “Based on research on emotion regulation and the psychological process of detachment, we show that individuals instructed to anthropomorphise sadness (i.e., think of sadness as a person) report less experienced sadness afterwards. We argue that this reduction of emotion occurs because anthropomorphic thinking increases the perceived distance between the self and the anthropomorphised emotion, thereby creating a feeling of detachment.”

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, try picking up a pen and writing a character sketch of this emotion to help you detach from it. But maybe stick to negative emotions: the strategy works in the same way for happy ones, too. So, if Joy is in your driving seat today, you may want to keep her close and let her be.

The research article When Sadness Comes Alive, Will It be Less Painful? The Effects of Anthropomorphic Thinking on Sadness Regulation and Consumption is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A summary of the research is published in Science Daily.

A cognitive ‘cure’ for road rage..?

Not taking everything personally is the first step to challenging rage on the road. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Not taking everything personally is the first step to tackling feelings of road rage. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Another day, another road-rage incident – or so it seems. In the news we’re always hearing about the latest road rage episode, where someone is outraged by another person’s driving and takes revenge. Road rage can go beyond daily snarling behind the wheel, and far too frequently leads to dangerous behaviours – from spitting and swearing to angry gestures, physical attacks and even use of weapons.

Psychologists have looked long and hard at road rage and its causes, and have concluded that it is the distortion in drivers’ thinking that causes many crashes, cut-ups and collisions. The latest research into road rage, from the Free University of Brussels seems to suggest that tackling this distorted thinking in drivers – and getting them to challenge their angry and destructive thoughts – can help to reduce the rage that’s provoked by other drivers’ behaviour on the road.

Basically, if a driver thinks the other person has cut him up on purpose, he may feel that it’s a personal attack on him. He may respond aggressively, and believe the other driver needs to be ‘taught a lesson’. This is an all-too-familiar situation in traffic-heavy roads in busy, urban environments where everyone is in a total rush.

In a psychological experiment, 40 male drivers were asked to challenge their distorted thinking when someone else on the road did something that could trigger their own aggressive driving. Some of the participants were asked to devise an ‘antidote’ to the thoughts that would automatically pop into their head when someone cut them up, didn’t indicate, or overtook inappropriately. These antidotes were phrases, in their own words, which countered the belief that the aggressive/bad drivers were out to get them.

In psychological speak, these phrases were “inoculations” against the distorted thinking that could lead drivers to retaliate against people they perceived to be bad drivers who had in in for them.

The ‘control’ group in the psychology experiment (not inoculated) had discussions about hostile driving, but didn’t come up with their own phrases to counter their negative thinking. In subsequent tests, the people who had inoculated themselves had far fewer accidents (in simulated driving tests) than people who hadn’t.

The key learning from this experiment, in my opinion, is not to take every single daily ‘offence’ against you as something personal. Find an alternative way of distancing yourself from the perceived slight. Whether you’re behind the wheel or otherwise.

Seven ways the ‘unsent letter’ can channel your anger

Write down your angry thoughts (but don't send them) to help process your feelings (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/anankkml)

Write down your angry thoughts (but don’t send them) to help process your feelings (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/anankkml)

Full of rage at someone but not sure you can tell them? Feeling hurt and let down by a partner but fearful of telling them straight? Wish you could tell a parent exactly how they made you feel? I frequently recommend the ‘unsent letter’ as a way of expressing your feelings about or towards someone who’s made you mad, bad or sad.

The unsent letter is a form of writing therapy that encourages you to address a letter to someone you don’t feel you can talk directly to – perhaps a former lover, a friend you’ve fallen out with, or perhaps someone who has died. It’s a way of putting into words a deeply held thought or feeling that has somehow been damaging you in some way, or holding you back. The idea is that you write about your feelings openly – so they’re ‘out there’ – but you don’t have to send the letter. The point is to articulate and process your feelings rather then openly hurt someone else by sending the letter.

So you can rage about a vexatious issue connected to a significant person in your life, and it’s you who ends up feeling better. The unsent letter can be written by hand, or typed as an email – whichever you prefer. Just don’t press send!

Here are seven ways the unsent letter can help to channel your anger… (more…)

Confiding in a trusted colleague can alleviate work stress

Don't take it out on customers. Chat to a colleague if you're overwhelmed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Don’t take it out on customers. Chat to a colleague if you’re overwhelmed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

With a third of UK workers struggling to cope with depression, stress and burnout, perhaps the chat around the water cooler could be refreshing in more ways than one? The key thing is to pick the person who’s going to empathise and – most importantly – be able to keep your issues confidential. Being able to speak to someone you trust could make your issues seem more survivable.

A survey from the Depression Alliance, as part of Depression Awareness Week, says that eight in 10 workers suffering stress-related issues feel lonely and isolated because of their feelings. Only half of those feeling lonely or isolated had confided in a colleague, yet nearly 71% found that discussing their condition with a colleague helped them feel better.

I think the key point here is trusted. Workplaces can abound with politics. It’s great to offload on a colleague feeling similarly overwhelmed, but think about who this colleague would share it with. If you can’t trust someone at work, then your partner or friend might be able to help.

But if you really need to offload to someone who’s outside your professional and social circles, and who won’t spread the whispers around that water cooler, then call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Bickering parents affect their kids’ mental health

Unresolved arguments between parents can create insecurity in their kids. (pic courtesy of David Castillo Dominic/freedigitalphotos.net)

Unresolved arguments between parents can create insecurity in their kids. (pic courtesy of David Castillo Dominic/freedigitalphotos.net)

Parents who bicker in front of the kids, and fail to resolve their arguments, could affect their children’s mental and physical health, according to a report by relationship charity OnePlusOne.

The study looked at ‘destructive’ and ‘constructive’ conflicts and how they affected children. In destructive conflict, parents sulk, slam doors or make their kids the focus of the row. Constructive conflict is where parents resolve their differences during the argument.

Destructive conflict can have social, emotional and behavioural effect on kids. They might start to suffer psychosomatic pains such as stomachache and headache. The insecurity they feel can also affect their growth. Kids growing up in this way can be more likely to perpetuate these conflict behaviours when they become parents themselves. 

Report co-author Dr Catherine Houlston says: “If a child sees his or her parents in conflict then work things out, they understand it’s possible for difficult situations to be resolved, and they feel more secure.”

Can venting your anger online make you feel worse?

anima anger online

Ranting online gives short-lived catharsis but can lead to longer-term anger issues. (istockphoto.com/KyKyPy3HuK)

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Those famous words of Mark Twain have been given a contemporary twist in research carried out to discover the impact of venting anger online. Can the acid of anger come back to harm you?

Psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay investigated Anger on the internet: the perceived value of rant-sites. They carried out two studies to look at the way people express anger anonymously on blogs, social networks and on rant sites (forums specially created for venting anger), how they feel after ranting, and the emotional impact of reading angry posts. They particularly wanted to find out if venting anger can be cathartic in the short and long term.

All participants in the first study said they felt calm and relaxed immediately after ranting online. But those who vented frequently were found to become angrier rather than calmer. The study found that frequent ranters have higher anger scores and “express their anger in more maladaptive ways than the norm”. They were also found to demonstrate anger ‘offline’ too, averaging one physical fight and two verbal fights per month, and half of them had been told by others that they had an anger problem. As for the emotional impact of reading rants online in study two, people became less happy and sadder after reading the rants.

The researchers concluded: “Reading and writing online rants are likely unhealthy practices as those who do them often are angrier and have more maladaptive expressions styles than others. Likewise, reading and writing online rants are associated with negative shifts in mood for the vast majority of people.”

So, what to make of these results? They are partly in line with catharsis theory, as emotional release can be healing. But, importantly, only if it is directed in an appropriate way. Unlike expressive writing, where you’re encouraged to spill your feelings onto the page as a way of working through emotional problems, venting is “void of any structure” and doesn’t have an end in mind other than letting off steam (which then causes more anger in the long term). But through the  process of expressive writing, the person spilling their stresses on the page learns to face and ‘own’ their issues.

But in the online-venting study, there were some revealing responses from participants:

  • 67% appreciated other people commenting on their posts.
  • 42% wanted validation for their feelings.
  • 29% would prefer to talk to someone.

It seems that angry people want to be listened to, acknowledged, and validated. They want their feelings to be seen, heard and understood. Perhaps their reason for venting anger online anonymously is a fear that their anger cannot be tolerated by the person or thing they’re angry about, and they’re afraid of repercussions? And perhaps they’d secretly love to trade the bitterness of their acid for the milk of human kindness?