How We Recognize Secret Negative Emotions

3 min read
johnhain / Pixabay

Source: johnhain / Pixabay

Have you ever woken up in a negative mood and not known why?

Have you ever felt that something was off emotionally, but you felt unable to control the negative feelings?

Recent research published in Psychological Science (Millgram et al., 2023) suggests that it is more difficult to deal with our negative emotions if we don’t know what is causing us to feel anxious, angry, or depressed. If we know the cause of our negative feelings, there is good evidence that we can better deal with them and lessen the negative emotions.

How Do We Deal with Negative Emotions?

When experiencing a negative emotion, such as anxiety, sadness, or irritation, we can engage in a number of different emotion regulation strategies to try to deal with it.

We can remove ourselves from the emotion-inducing situation. We can engage in cognitive reappraisal (which involves changing the way we think about it), we can turn to others for social support, try to relax, drink alcohol or take drugs, or try to suppress our feelings. Some strategies are more effective (e.g., cognitive reappraisal, relaxation), while others are less successful (e.g., drinking, suppression).

In the study, participants were contacted on their smartphones several times a day for a week and asked about the emotions they were experiencing (positive or negative), if they knew what was causing the emotion, and their responses to their negative emotions (the emotion regulation strategies mentioned earlier). They were also asked if their emotion regulation strategy decreased the negative emotions.

The results suggested that if people knew the source causing their negative emotions, they were more likely to try to regulate them. Moreover, those who knew the source used more effective regulation strategies.

Finally, people who recognized the source of their negative emotions had higher scores on a measure of life satisfaction and showed better psychological adjustment.

What It Means

This study suggests that when we experience negative emotions, it is much easier (and better) to try to uncover the source: what is causing us to feel distress, anger, or anxiety. If we can diagnose the source, we can use more positive emotion regulation strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal or removing ourselves from the emotion-inducing situation.

When negative emotions are more “free-floating” (i.e., we don’t know why we have the negative feelings), it is more difficult to regulate them. We may try counter-productive regulation or coping strategies, such as turning to substances, emotional eating, or ruminating.

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