Strategies to regulate emotions in high states of anxiety

Note: This research is part of a series of assignments for the Cognitive Psychology course, part of my MSc in Psychology.

Going through my third lockdown caused by a new strain of COVID-19, I am not as anxious as when the pandemic started. In the beginning, I was in a state of high alert and anxiety generated by uncertainty about the future. 

Anxiety is a problem of emotion regulation (Barlow, 1988), mostly equated with fear in psychology and psychiatry (Barlow, 2004). Multiple fields study emotions (Philippot & Feldman, 2004), starting with the last decades of the 20th century (Gross, 1998), the field being in its maturing stage currently (Tamir, 2011). For example, psychotherapy designs interventions for emotional awareness and regulation (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997), cognitive psychology investigates the connection between cognition and emotion (Bahk & Choi, 2017), while neuropsychology inquires how brain functions are related to emotional generation and regulation, and their implications on mental disorders (Andrewes & Jenkins, 2019). 

Figure 1. Occurrences of “emotion regulation” in Google Scholar publications

Note: How many times “emotion regulation” appeared in a publication on Google Scholar between 1990-2013 (blue line) versus publications containing the phrase “mental control”. Reprinted from “Emotion Regulation: Current Status and Future Prospects” by J.J. Gross, 2015, Psychological Inquiry, Taylor & Francis Group.

Emotional regulation refers to how people influence their emotions (type, duration, or intensity), react to emotions and influence the situation that drives those emotions (Gross, 2015). Some emotional regulation strategies are reappraisal (redefining the meaning of an emotional stimulus), cognitive distancing (becoming detached and observing the emotion and situation), and behavioural suppression (suppressing external displays of emotions, like facial expressions) (Pessoa, 2013). 

Figure 2. The process of emotion regulation

Note: depiction of the process of emotional regulation: emotional responses are depicted in the inner circle (situation, attention appraisal, response), while the emotional regulation strategies are represented by the outer circle (situation selection/situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, response modulation). Thus, each regulation strategy is attached to the emotional generation process on which they have the largest impact. Reprinted from “Cognitive emotion regulation: a review of theory and scientific findings” by. K. McRae, 2016, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier

The strategies I use most often are reappraisal and suppression. While suppressing or distraction functions in the short term, reappraisal is more effective than suppression, as it does not impact memory and reduces emotional experience and behaviour (Gross, 2002). Reappraisal decreases amygdala responses, engaging the prefrontal cortex, and can induce long-lasting changes in the neural representation of an uncontrollable emotional event (Denny et al., 2015), hence it appears to be the most appropriate strategy for the current context. 

Note: Emotions influence your behaviour or response to situations. For example, stress represents high brain arousal that causes physiological changes in your body (like sweaty palms, increased cortisol levels, and diverting blood to certain organs). Emotions are how your brain assesses these responses. For example, arousal can be interpreted as excitement or fear, depending on context and previous experience. Cognitive reappraisal refers to reinterpreting these signals from the brain to generate an emotional response more suitable for you by overriding the automatic emotional response to situations. For example, one method to reinterpret your body signals is to say to yourself out loud, “I am excited” when you feel yourself getting aroused; this way, you direct the signals from the brain towards an emotion that produces more useful behaviours for you, from The Motivation Mindset. (2017, July 26). How to Overcome Anxiety With Cognitive Reappraisal [Video]. YouTube. Accessed on July 8, 2021.


Andrewes, D. G., & Jenkins, L. M. (2019, March 14). The Role of the Amygdala and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex in Emotional Regulation: Implications for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Neuropsychology Review. Springer Nature.

Bahk, Y.-C., & Choi, K.-H. (2017, September 12). The relationship between autobiographical memory, cognition, and emotion in older adults: a review. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. Taylor & Francis Group (Informa).

Barlow, D. H. (1988). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic. Guilford Press.

Barlow, D. H. (2004). Anxiety and Its Disorders, Second Edition: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic (Second ed.). The Guilford Press.

Denny, B. T., Inhoff, M. C., Zerubavel, N., Davachi, L., & Ochsner, K. N. (2015, July 31). Getting Over It: Long-Lasting Effects of Emotion Regulation on Amygdala Response. Psychological Science. SAGE Publishing.

Greenberg, L. S., & Paivio, S. C. (1997). Working with emotions in psychotherapy. Guilford Press.

Gross, J. J. (2002, May 1). Emotion regulation: affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology. Wiley.

Gross, J. J. (2015, January 2). Emotion Regulation: Current Status and Future Prospects. Psychological Inquiry. Taylor & Francis Group.

McRae, K. (2016, August 1). Cognitive emotion regulation: a review of theory and scientific findings. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.

Pessoa, L. (2013). The Cognitive-Emotional Brain: From Interactions to Integration (The MIT Press) (Illustrated ed.). The MIT Press.

Philippot, P., & Feldman, R. S. (2004). The Regulation of Emotion (1st ed.). Psychology Press.

Tamir, M. (2011, January 1). The Maturing Field of Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review. SAGE Publishing.

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