Suppressing Negative Emotions: The Good, The Bad (And The Alternative)






One of my favorite examples that demonstrates the power of emotion, that I think we can all relate to on some level… is when we’ve broken up with someone, we still have feelings for them, and we see them with a new “partner” – perhaps in a social situation.

Such an event can trigger emotional energy instantaneously that, depending on how we interpret, may result in feelings of jealousy or hurt.

We might act all nonchalant, and be seemingly unaffected in that type of situation – but it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that can have a dramatic impact on our well-being.

Of course, we know that emotion influences the quality of our attention – our ability to focus and concentrate. It influences our decision-making process, our health, and our social interactions.

And so whilst we all have triggered emotions that from time-to-time we’d perhaps rather not have, it’s the way in which we interpret the event or process the emotion that can be beneficial or detrimental, to the aforementioned areas.

In other words, the way in which we regulate emotion is what determines how we experience our experiences – and therefore what type of impact emotion has on us.

One particular study, that we can gain insight from, examined different emotion-regulation strategies – specifically the suppression or cognitive reappraisal of a “negative” emotional event, using fMRI scans. [1]

Suppression, a response-focused emotion-regulation strategy, is implemented after the emotion has “taken hold” – and involves attempting to inhibit behaviors associated with the emotional response such as body gestures, facial expressions, or any other emotionally-expressive behavior.

Cognitive reappraisal, on the other hand, is adopted early in the emotion-generative process and involves a cognitive-linguistic approach to reinterpret the meaning of a situation.

What the study found was that whilst suppression did result in a decrease in negative emotional behavior and experience, there was a “late” prefrontal cortex response as well as increased and sustained amygdala activity.

It has previously been argued that this delay in prefrontal cortex activation is the reason that suppression is not as effective as other emotion-regulation strategies.

Interestingly, other research demonstrated that “suppression of anxiety-related thoughts may result in a paradoxical increase in anxiety, and may cause and/or maintain anxiety problems.” [2]

And so whilst suppression can be effective in certain situations, in others it is not. Regardless, it appears to come at the cost of sustained amygdala activity that may be physiologically taxing and detrimental to one’s health and well-being.

In contrast, cognitive reappraisal resulted in an earlier prefrontal cortex response and decreased amygdala activity – as well as a more substantial decrease in negative affect and experience, compared to suppression.

In our social-situation example, this would be the difference between trying to suppress the negative affect (the jealousy or hurt) after it’s fully taken hold, OR to reinterpret the situation – to see the event in a more positive light as soon as one sees their ex-partner with someone else.

This is going to be a particularly important skill for anyone dealing with triggered emotion, that is being interpreted in a way that prevents them from moving forward in any area of life.

As practitioners, operating from a brain-based perspective, utilizing cognitive reappraisal strategies to help clients reinterpret any given situation can be incredibly beneficial – so they can create new meanings, and be confident knowing that their emotion doesn’t have to dictate how they experience their life.

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