Have you ever felt the need to hide your emotions? Or you blame yourself for becoming too emotional? When we think about regulating our emotions, what often comes to mind is suppressing the “bad” ones and trying to feel the “good” ones. What we’re left with is a negative sense of self along with emotional distress and imbalance. Positive psychologist Annette Stanton of University of California thinks we’ve placed too much of a negative connotation on our emotions. Through years of research, she encourages a healthier way of addressing our day-to-day emotions and feelings through an approach called emotion-focused coping.
Emotion-focused coping involves an active movement toward, rather than away from, a stressful encounter. Emotional processing (attempting to understand our emotions) and emotional expression (free and intentional displays of feeling) are encouraged. With this method, it is important to acknowledge and realize your feelings are valid, take time to figure out what you are really feeling and why, and allow yourself to feel and express your emotions without judgement.
In a 3-month study involving women with breast cancer, those who used emotion-focused coping techniques perceived their health status as much better, had lower psychological distress, and fewer medical appointments for cancer-related pain as compared to those who did not use this technique (Stanton et al, 2000). These same results have been replicated in studies involving other cancer types and illnesses, and in different cultural groups.
Another study examined different types of coping as predictors of disease severity of acute coronary syndrome, a cardiac disease. Patients who used emotion-focused coping had less severity overall, as its possible this method may moderate the heart’s reactivity to stress. This has great implications for creating psychological interventions in those who show symptoms of diseases related to stress reactions.
Even with minor daily stressors such as traffic, junk mail, and unexpected change of plans, or more significant issues such as financial shortages and minor illnesses, we have the choice to approach them mindfully or avoid them. Many people, especially those within a Western context, seem to benefit from expressing their emotions in a meaningful way. However, other cultures who are accustomed to suppressing their emotions may find that this coping method does not align with their values.
If we turn our attentions away from unpleasant feelings each time we experience them, we would learn very little about how these feelings influence us and our friends. Emotion-focused coping may foster a better understanding of our experiences, and over time we may develop the tendency to face our stressors directly and repeatedly (instead of avoiding them on occasion). Emotional pain does subside, time heals both psychological and physical wounds, and we can take back some control with effective coping skills.