May 26, 2010

Emotional Rescue

How to think your way out of feeling bad

By Taylor McNeil

“I think this kind of research can tell us what is most effective in changing emotions in the moment,” says Heather Urry. Photo: Joanie Tobin

Controlling our negative emotions is a good thing. When anger, fear or jealousy threatens to overwhelm us, we’d clearly be a lot happier if we could quickly slip out of their grip. The good news is that we probably have the ability to do just that. The not-so-good news is that we often don’t realize it.

Heather Urry, an assistant professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, is researching approaches we can use to overcome negative emotions. There are, of course, many different ways to do that, but in a recent paper published in the journal Emotion, she focused on two: cognitive reappraisal and attentional deployment.

“For more than 10 years now, I’ve been studying people’s ability to try to change how they feel,” Urry says. “I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and a lot of the sources of misery associated with psychiatric disorders involve problems of emotions. I’m interested in understanding people’s ability to increase the extent to which they can experience positive emotion, or decrease negative emotion.”

Cognitive behavioral therapists have long believed that by thinking differently about the events in our lives, we can blunt the effects of negative emotions and enhance positive feelings and thus be happier. That’s the basis of cognitive reappraisal, and Urry’s experiments, performed in a controlled setting, confirm that approach really works.

“I think this kind of research can tell us what is most effective in changing emotions in the moment,” says Urry. “And if that’s our goal—to change people’s emotional responses—let’s use this kind of research to find out what’s the best approach to doing that.”

In one experiment, Urry recruited students from Tufts’ Introduction to Psychology class to view a set of photos, some of them violent and disturbing. Their responses to the images were measured in different ways: the students were asked how they were feeling; their corrugator muscle region (the muscles that pull your eyebrows down and together) were measured; their heart rates were monitored; and their sweat gland activity was checked.

The participants were instructed to use cognitive reappraisal to increase or decrease their emotional response to each image as it appeared on a screen. For example, they were shown a photograph of a girl sitting on the floor looking sad. To increase their emotional response, they might be told to imagine the girl’s mother had died. To decrease their emotional response, the students might be told to imagine the girl was simply tired.

Urry found that students’ cognitive efforts to increase or decrease their emotional response worked, as measured by the various indicators: the students’ reports of their emotional intensity, a furrowed or relaxed brow, and, in some cases, increased sweat gland activity and heart rate. It proves that we can indeed control our emotional response to situations.

In this same study, Urry found that where you focus your attention can also regulate emotional responses—a technique called attentional deployment. As participants used cognitive reappraisal, she manipulated what part of the photographs participants looked at and tracked their eye movements as they did so. Some parts of the photographs to which gaze was directed were quite disturbing, other parts relatively neutral. As people looked away from disturbing parts of photos to neutral parts, their emotional response—measured in the same ways as the other experiment—was reduced. This result provided more proof in a controlled setting of a truism, Urry says, that we have the ability to improve our emotional lives by controlling our thoughts and actions.

All this supports Urry’s larger research goal of understanding the ways that people can take control of their emotions, or at least not be so much at their mercy. In an ongoing study with a graduate student in her lab, Philipp Opitz, G12, she is measuring emotional responses of younger and older people to see how they might differ.

Studies have found that people in their late 60s and older report higher levels of well-being than would normally be expected, given aging’s attendant health problems and cognitive decline. “All the crappy stuff happens when you get older, but older people report that they are doing pretty well,” Urry says. “I’m interested in figuring out if emotion regulation plays a role in this.” By comparing the two groups, she hopes to learn what emotion regulatory processes older people use to maintain happiness.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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