Impressive findings from the other side of the therapy couch: your therapist is better at regulating her emotions than you are, according to a small new study in the journal Psychotherapy.
The authors wanted to see if psychotherapists are better at regulating emotion than the rest of us, so they tested experienced therapists as well as non-therapists by showing them pictures designed to elicit negative emotional reactions, ranging from slightly negative images like sad people to very intense images like corpses and people with severe injuries. After each image, they rated how negative the image made them feel.
Both groups reacted the same way to the negative images.
But differences emerged during the second part of the study, when people were shown the pictures again and told to use one of two techniques that regulates emotion: either positive reappraisal, in which you reinterpret emotional information in a positive light, or distraction—thinking about something unrelated and neutral in order to disengage from the negativity. Both have been shown to be effective against negative emotions.
Therapists, the researchers found, were better at calming their emotional response by using these emotion regulation strategies than the non-therapists, regardless of which technique they chose.
“It’s something they need for that job and something that makes them be effective in what they do,” says study author Jan Pletzer, a graduate student in business administration at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany and in social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Next, Pletzer hopes to find out whether therapists come into their profession equipped with these emotional skills, or whether they hone them on the job.
“I suspect maybe it’s a little bit of both,” says psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD, adjunct associate professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, who was not involved in the study. But just because non-therapists have less training doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be less emotionally intelligent than the professionals sitting across from them.
We regulate our emotions through our thoughts, Alvord says—a key skill every good therapist learns how to do. “What lay people can do is really learn to catch your thoughts, be aware of your thoughts and recognize that those thoughts then lead to an emotional reaction and a physiological reaction,” she says. “Recognizing those connections is absolutely critical, and most people don’t. We think about emotions, but we don’t think about the thoughts and reframing and getting a different perspective.”
When we do, she says, the effects can be huge on both our mind and body. Reframe a speedbump into a positive, and “immediately you recognize that your body relaxes, your muscles aren’t as tense, you feel better and you have a better outlook for the rest of the day,” Alvord says. “It’s something that therapists learn, to catch themselves.”
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